KPBS AIRDATE: February 12, 1997
It’s Chinese New Year and African American History Month. What better way to celebrate than in the theatre? Two admirable groups — Teatro Máscara Mágica, A Common Ground Theatre, and the Asian American Repertory Theatre of San Diego are celebrating their culture onstage, and you should, too. Both plays deal with outsiders looking in, non-mainstreamers trying to hang onto their heritage and also assimilate into American society.
David Henry Hwang, best known for his Tony Award-winning “M. Butterfly,” was the first Asian-American playwright to break through to national prominence. His career took off with this early, 1980 work, “FOB: Fresh Off the Boat.” While it’s a little rough around the edges at times, the play clearly amplifies the playwright’s unique and developing voice.
Born in Los Angeles to immigrant Chinese parents, Hwang knew all too well the plight of the Fob, rejected by ABCs (American Born Chinese) as well as by the “white ghosts” of their new land. Here, as in later plays, Hwang gets a tad preachy, framing the piece with a mocking stereotype of the Fob: “clumsy, ugly, greasy, loud, stupid, four-eyed,” etcetera, a bleak image he spends most of the brief evening completely destroying. As he often does, Hwang mingles history, fantasy and naturalism to explore what he’s called the “fluidity of identity” endemic to the multicultural modern age.
It’s an enigmatic piece, simply and effectively presented. Is Steve really a Fob, or is he Gwan Gung, the Chinese god of warriors, writers and prostitutes? Has he met his match in Grace, who may be just a worker in her father’s restaurant, or is she FaMuLan, the fabled woman warrior? And what is Dale’s self-identity? All three actors have a tendency to race through their lines at times, but they’re all capable and convincing: Andy Lowe as Steve, Robert Lee as Dale, and, the night I was there, understudy Laura Lisa Wee as Grace. Nicely directed by Chil Kong, it’s the perfect occasion to say Happy New Year, AART, and Happy first birthday!
Now “Pill Hill” is another cause for celebration. Directed by UCSD’s Floyd Gaffney, this West coast premiere is a powerful portrait of African American men and their struggles, hopes and fears in chasing down the American dream. In this 1991 Samuel Kelly play, we follow six men on Chicago’s South Side, watching them progress, over the course of ten years, from buddies at the steel mill, to the full spectrum of success and failure: from the wealthy drug-dealer to the homeless unemployed, from the hustler-salesman to the first black attorney in the city’s most prestigious law firm.
Time and again, each of them is tested by the society, and each pays a hefty price for his choices. They deal the cards, do the dozens, and try to yank themselves up from the bottom of the societal heap, striving always for Pill Hill, the wealthy black community that symbolizes ultimate success.
It’s a painful story, told in a warm, funny, chummy way, by a terrific ensemble of actors. Lamont Thompson, Antonio Johnson and Walter Murray are as natural and credible as ever, and Tommie Reynolds, Scott Johnson and Rhys Green get stronger as they go along. Gaffney has chosen a wonderful cast, and directed them with a sure and confident hand. The run is too short; the show is a must-see.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1997 Patté Productions Inc.