Published in KPBS On Air Magazine April 1996

The ten year old girl bends down gracefully, picks up a glimmering broad sword and violently slashes the air. Michelle Wong is in rehearsal, and also in training.   She plays the title role in “Fa Mu Lan:   The Woman Warrior” (at the Lyceum Theatre, April 9-14).

Actually, Michelle only plays one third of the role.   Young Fa Mu Lan is played by four year old Kalí Brisby, and adult Fa Mu Lan is Los Angeles actor Felicia Wong (no relation to Michelle), who has a background in Ken Po karate.  

Michelle has had six years of gymnastics, but no training in martial arts. And that’s critical to the role.

Fa Mu Lan lived in ancient China, around 420 A.D., during a time of great civil unrest. Her father, a military officer, secretly taught her kung fu. At that time, women were expected to be mothers, weavers and wives.   They were forbidden from formal study or any position of power.

When her father was unexpectedly called out of retirement, back to war, Fa Mu Lan feared that, at his advanced age, he would die.   She decided to report in his place, masquerading as a man. Remaining undetected for three years, she served with great distinction, and was ultimately promoted to Field Marshal. According to legend, it was she who led the army in the final battle of the war. The Emperor offered Fa Mu Lan a position in the royal imperial court, which she declined.   She was given a hero’s welcome home and, when she finally revealed herself as a beautiful woman, she was able to marry a fellow officer whom she secretly loved.

During the Song Dynasty, about 1000 A.D., a famous poem was written about Fa Mu Lan, and even today, Chinese children are required to learn it by rote.

“This is the same myth that Maxine Hong Kingston used as the basis of her “Woman Warrior,”‘ explains Kent Lee Brisby, writer of this new theatrical adaptation. “The same source legend of consummate family obligation and the ability to break out of the traditional role of a woman.”

“Fa Mu Lan” is jointly produced by the Asian Story Theatre, the San Diego Chinese Cultural Center and Teatro Máscara Mágica, a collaborative, community-based theater company committed to the cultural heritage of artists of all colors.

The Asian Story Theatre specializes in high-action, kung fu productions which are “interactive, inclusory and participatory for kids.”   Since 1989, they’ve mounted annual productions, including several tales of the legendary Monkey King. Right now, Fa Mu Lan seems to be riding a wave of popularity. In addition to a recent stage play, three children’s books about the Woman Warrior have just been published, and Disney is set to release a musical version, “The Legend of Mu Lan.”

Says Brisby, artistic director of the Asian Story Theatre, “We wanted to get as close to our audience as possible.   So we devised this framing device, a modern-day, materialistic kid whose traditional Chinese mother tells the story of Fa Mu Lan… After we saw Michelle doing her gymnastic moves in the Junior Theatre’s production of “Oliver!” last summer, we knew we had someone who could play the American and Fa Mu Lan.   Her stage presence and movement ability were more important than martial arts training. That we could provide.”

And so they did. As Michelle puts it, “I’ve had to do seven years of training in seven months!”   That wasn’t easy, given a staggering schedule of extracurricular activities: gymnastics, piano, singing, dance, cheerleading and sports.

Michelle finds the king fu training “fun… a new experience, and something to add to my resume. My gymnastic background helps a lot, with the flexibility.   I’ve had to build up my arms so I could carry heavy staffs and swords. But my ability of learning very quickly is helping me.”   The poised, articulate fifth grader (Evans School, La Jolla) is frank and unpretentious.

“I’m in about half the show, and a lot of that is martial arts… I think the story is very exciting, how a girl becomes a boy and goes into the army and fights as a man. I think, actually, it could really happen. Cause you’ve seen people my age who are already black belts in karate.

“I can relate to both characters I play.   I’m the same kind of girl as the modern teenager; I like going shopping. I relate to Fa Mu Lan because I’m very athletic. I have the ability to act like a tomboy.   I used to think I was a tomboy, but I still act like a regular girl who likes boys.”

The third of four children born to a Chinese father (a physician) and a Filipino mother (a nurse), Michelle has traveled widely, and speaks “a little Tagalog and very little Chinese.”  

In the future, she’d consider teaching, but she’d rather be an actor, and hopes that, as before, “someone will spot me and ask me to audition for another show — either here or in San Francisco.”   (The production travels to the Palace of Fine Arts, for four educational performances).

“I’m the kind of person who wants to keep going,” says Michelle. “I’m restless.   I don’t like to sit still.   I’m always talking, or doing flips, or reading. I love to read, especially fantasy stories or love stories. This play is a little bit of both.”

©1996 Patté Productions Inc.