music in the park san jose

.An American Story of Automated Atrocity

A review of Berkeley Rep’s ‘The Far Country’

music in the park san jose

Atrocity can be automated. A century-spanning story can be delivered as if magically shrink-wrapped in a sleek, no-moment-wasted live-theater performance that ripples with present-day and future implications. Masterful storytelling can pitch humor, patience, persistence and cunning against egregious, historical racism without ever once becoming synonymous with permission for its continuation. Specific to America, the country’s greatest ghosts can be heard calling out, reminding us that wings can be made out of shackles.

These and other truths arrive in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s presentation of Pulitzer Prize-finalist Lloyd Suh’s The Far Country, which runs through April 14. Directed by Jennifer Chang, the production brings together an impressive creative team: Wilson Chin on scenic design, Helen Q. Huang on costume design, Minjoo Kim on lighting design, Fan Zhang on sound design and original music, Hsuan-Kuang Hsieh on projection design and Erika Chong Shuch on movement.

Masterfully cast by Karina Fox, The Far Country’s story explores immigration, identity and memory, led by Tommy Bo, a dextrous Moon Gyet; Feodor Chin, sensitive and solid as Gee; Tess Lina, easily commanding the show’s moral center as Low, Moon Gyet’s mother; Sharon Shao, delightful and strong-as-steel as Yuen; along with John Keabler, an aloof Dean/Inspector; Whit K. Lee—subtle, ironic and warm as Yip; and Aaron Wilton, chilling as Harriwell/Inspector.

Opening in front of a monolithic wooden wall topped with coiled barbed wire upon which images of newspaper articles about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake have been splashed, the first scene has Gee, a middle-aged Chinese man, being interrogated by an immigration inspector. Yip serves as sidecar interpreter—playwright Suh’s first demonstration of skillful writing that ping-pongs between cosmic pain and comic pleasure.

San Francisco resident Gee wants to travel to China to visit his family, and to return with his son. Gee must prove his American citizenship to be allowed to leave and re-enter. It is 1909 and the country’s blatantly racist system of naturalization and immigration enforcement in the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act requires Gee to profess faithful allegiance to the United States flag, wax poetic about its (false) promises of “liberty for all,” and be subject to horrid, repetitive, prejudiced questioning.

Gee arrives in China where he allies with Low, who obtains $1,600 from a money lender to pay Gee to take back to America Moon Gyet, her son posing as Gee’s offspring. Back in the United States at the Angel Island Immigration Station, Moon Gyet must prove his relationship to Gee. The sneering commanding officers are determined to shred his story—and his very soul—with endless questions about the number, color and texture of steps leading into childhood houses and schools, and other challenges to his memory.

Nearly ripped of his entire sense of self, one of the most compelling monologues has Moon Gyet describing a laundry list of co-opted erasures: identity, desires, private dreams, the different names for dim and bright stars, and any hope for escape from what is clearly not an investigation but is instead a psychological invasion and government-sanctioned physical torture.

After 17 months of incarceration, Moon Gyet is finally allowed entry, after hiring a lawyer and paying bribes to various authorities. The play’s pace, already admirably economical, condenses as Moon Gyet assists Gee as a laundryman, returns to China to visit his mother, and brings back a wife (Yuen) who repeats the horrid historical cycle and pays a fee that provides repayment of Moon Gyet’s lingering debt.

Along the way, director Chang and movement director Shuch create an astonishing moment of spoken word and choreography that tells of traveling to America, time suspended into seemingly endless torture at Angel Island, poems painted, then carved into the prison walls, and more. The juxtaposition of slow motion and swift box moving, stylized gestures versus genuine touching, poems written in Chinese projected on the backdrop and whispers interrupted by bold utterances, is marvelous.

Following intermission, Act II is overall less fulsome and offers a breezy counterpoint with Moon Gynet discussing arranged marriage with Yuen, a young woman whose behavior and opinions seem to suggest she has just walked in off the streets of downtown Berkeley in 2024. Jump to Yuen, very obviously pregnant with what is the fifth child the married couple will parent. Gee is frail, ill in bed with fever, worried he has forever lost his true memories and will only harbor the lies he has been and is forced to live to be a Chinese person in America.

In the final scenes hope is placed in the next, younger generation, which will require the art of crafting lives that can declare, “We belong in America,” and will involve truth instead of lies and triumph without torture.

It’s a worthy message delivered in a swift, cautionary tale at exactly the right moment when America vacillates between repeating a horrendous historical cycle, or at last breaking free.

1 COMMENT

  1. So the play is based upon immigration fraud. Very timely.
    Some questions:
    The 17 months detention cited: what was the average stay at Angel Island?
    Had immigration from China been open, what would the population of California be today?
    Does the play fast forward to today and celebrate the attainments of Chinese-Americans?

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