When I first reviewed "Golden Child" when it premiered at the Public Theatre early last season, I wrote that it was "neither as good nor as compelling a play as the author's previous `M. Butterfly', but [had] compensations in the fact that it [was] nonetheless absorbing, and that the issues [were], arguably, hotter, [those issues concerning] cultural cross-pollination, the introduction of Christianity to Southeast China" just after the turn of the century.
Now that the play has returned to New York, this time on Broadway, after a developmental odyssey that has taken it across the country and back, I am happy to report that the issues remain hot...and that Chinese American playwright David Henry Hwang, in league with director James Lapine, has so drastically improved the play that it stands easily next to "M. Butterfly" as an important, signature work in his cannon.
Though there have been inevitable tweaks and intricate adjustments of focus in the play's internal structure, the biggest change, and the most apparent, is the adjustment of the frame in which the story is contained. For this one is a kind of memory play...racial memory, really.
Originally, the play began in present day Manhattan with a young man, Andrew, recounting a recent visit to his very Christian, conversion-minded grandmother; on the cab ride back to the airport, something jogged his memory, and he free associated to stories he had been told--and his impressions of those stories--about his grandmother as a young girl. The play flashed back to her village and family in a Southeast China village (Fukien province), 1918. A family headed by Andrew's great grandfather--also played by the actor cast as Andrew.
By having Andrew twice removed from the generation of his dramatised forebears, rendering them characters he could not ever have known, and by making the motivation of his remembrance so without emotional urgency, Hwang surrounded the play with an unintended intellectual coolness, which affected our perception of the story proper. And by having the head of the family played by so young an actor, much of the thematic resonance was, likewise, lost. The story portrays Andrew's ancestor as a man determined to embrace Western culture and religion--a less traumatic adjustment for a young man than a man of middle age; the sense of loss, of cost, of breaking with your ancestors, is nowhere near as profound.
In the revised "Golden Child", Andrew is reënvisioned as a man of middle age (the remarkable Randall Duk Kim). He is in bed with his fourth, and very young, wife, and feeling restive--terrified, really. She is pregnant and he is filled with anxiety about being a father...about his responsibilities as a father, and about the legacy he will hand down to his offspring. In the throes of his anxiety, he is visited by the spirit of his mother, Eng Ahn (Julyana Soelistyo), come to offer her advice on the subject.
The play flashes back to her childhood. And now we meet Andrew's grandfather, Tieng-Bin (also Duk Kim). Tieng-Bin has been away for two years on business, but he has returned with an interest in Christianity, having befriended the missionary Reverend Baines (the magnificently dry John Horton).
And as the story unfolds, it chronicles the impact of this new fascination upon Tieng-Bin's three wives: The eldest, First Wife--the mother of his child--traditionalist Siu-Yong (Tsai Chin); But scheming Second Wife Luan (Kim Miyori); and younger, sexier, more innocent third wife Eling (Ming-Na Wen). The wives use their wiles to jockey for position in their husband's favor (Christianity equals monogamy, don't forget), but only the savviest among them recognize the potential of Christianity as coin of the realm. And, it is implied, their small tale represents the saga of a nation in microcosm. One interpretation anyway.
"Golden Child" does not have the hard edge and anger of the musical "Pacific Overtures" (possibly the most famous stage piece to explore similar "westernization" issues, specifically the changing of Japan following Commadore Perry's invasion in 1853); it is a gentler thing, more of a tone poem. There are characters in it who are angry, certainly, and there are momentous events--death plays a part--but its style is more sinuous, and it presents its story without proselytizing. In a surprising way I won't spoil, it even flirts with "magic realism," allowing for a touch of the supernatural--which is as close as it comes to making an editorial statement. This one leaves the answers up to the viewer.
It tells a fairly interesting tale for the viewer to mull over too, with some unexpected intrigues and reversals. One of the best reversals comes with the introduction of the Reverend, and a striking theatrical device that--though it would seem an obvious choice--I've never come across before:
We accept on faith that Tieng-Bin's family speak among themselves in Chinese...although what we are hearing in the theatre, of course, is well-spoken, largely unaccented English.
However--when the white man enters the enclave, Hwang has him speaking in slightly broken English. It takes but a few sentences for us to realize that this broken English represents the reverend's limited grasp of Chinese...to understand that, in the reality of the story, English is never spoken, not even by the visitor. It's a wonderful spin on a tired cliché...and its subtlety is typical of the play's general approach as well.
Under the direction of James Lapine, the production remains as spare and streamlined as it was last season, the performances clean and meticulously shaped, the physical attitudes seeming to be derived as much from representative artwork of the culture as by careful acting choices. (Especially notable is young Julyana Soelistyo, whose transformation from an old woman to a girl of twelve and back again is wholly convincing and genuinely awesome.)
When I closed my earlier review of "Golden Child", I wrote that while I admired it greatly..."it never quite travels the full distance between the head and the heart." But that was then. This time out, it does go the distance, and when Hwang "brings it on home"--literally, returning to the framework and the altered consciousness of the expectant father--it lands as a thought provoking and quite moving fable about the responsibility--and inevitability--of each new generation to decide for itself what traditions it will cling to...and which ones it will create...
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