The kickoff to Impact Theatre’s “bar mitzvah” 13th season with Lauren Yee’s Ching Chong Chinaman feels like a great leap forward for the company. Its black-box space has comfortable new seats, and the play by 23-year-old San Franciscan and recent Yale grad Yee is whip-smart and very funny, in a snappy production by Desdemona Chiang with a strong cast.
Set in a toothpaste-green kitchen by Edward Ross, the show starts with the Wong family finding an unfamiliar young man in black pajamas and a coolie hat sitting at the table. Daughter Desdemona asks who this “Asian guy” is whom dad Ed calls a “Chinaman,” insisting, “I can use it! It’s like the N word.”
Teenage son Upton claims Jin Qiang is a refugee, but really he’s an indentured servant Upton has brought over from China to do his homework so he can play World of Warcraft all day long, because Upton’s in training for a video-game tournament in Korea. Ed pronounces Jin Qiang’s name as “Ching Chong,” while everyone else calls him J.
Sung Min Park is immediately sympathetic in his attentive incomprehension as J, and of course the joke is that he’s a regular Joe who just doesn’t speak English, and all he wants is to compete on America’s Next Top Dancer.
Cindy Im’s Desi is hilariously high-stress and mortified by everything her parents do. She worries she doesn’t have a rich enough ethnic heritage for her Princeton application, so she cribs from The Joy Luck Club. Arthur Keng’s Upton is largely summed up by his self-satisfied smirk, but there’s something touching about his superficiality as he gets a glimpse of how little of a life he has behind it.
Dennis Yen is full of sitcom-dad charm as Ed, who sees ordering Chinese takeout as something exotic. Easygoing and eager to please, even his clueless parroting of Asian stereotypes comes off as good-natured, heedless of being Asian-American himself. Lisa Kang is amusing as the exaggeratedly needy, childlike mom Grace, who’s overwhelmed by the smallest of tasks and wants to get pregnant.
Particularly clever is Yee’s deft use of magical realism, as embodied by Pearl Wong in a multitude of roles. She pokes her head out of a cupboard as the voice of a fortune cookie, then walks out as Kim, a Korean orphan whom Desi is sponsoring and forcing to help with her college entrance essay. Kim is in Korea, but also in the room to interact with Desi as needed. Characters who don’t speak the same language find that they can converse fluently through the magic of “body language.” The way these dramatic devices are written and staged makes them perfectly easy to swallow.
Pearl Wong is a wonder, moving from J’s mother having furtive personal conversations in a call center to Upton’s imagined Korean schoolgirl groupies, the half-starved Kim, and various voices of authority and inanity.
The story is full of twists both hilarious and sobering, and if the wrap-up isn’t quite as strong as the setup, the journey’s so thoroughly enjoyable that one’s just sorry to see it end.
Yee’s references to Amy Tan are particularly amusing because the Oakland-born novelist also has a show opening just across the bay. San Francisco Opera’s world premiere of The Bonesetter’s Daughter features Tan’s first opera libretto, based on her 2001 novel about a San Francisco ghostwriter wrestling with the ghosts of her senile mother’s troubled youth in China.
The music by Stewart Wallace, composer of the 1995 opera Harvey Milk, is an interesting hodgepodge of Chinese-influenced Western opera, although the bits of East and West occasionally clash jarringly. Overall the music is dramatic in accentuating particular moments, but not memorable.
Tan’s libretto relies on familiarity with her novel, or careful reading of the synopsis, to make much sense. It’s amusing enough when mother LuLing (mezzo-soprano Ning Liang) jumps up on a restaurant table to sing about the Nicole Simpson murder, but it’s hard to make sense of her back story with the sinister coffinmaker Chang (baritone Hao Jiang Tian) and magical guardian Precious Auntie (Chinese opera star Qian Yi) and how daughter Ruth (mezzo-soprano Zheng Cao) reliving it puts the ghosts to rest.
Here the magic is in no way realistic, full of curses, dragon bones, and a lot of talk about “genuine ancient secret stuff,” and Chen Shi-Zheng’s flashy production is not particularly magical. You’d have to let the program explain that the aerial tumblers behind screen projections of fire and water in the opening “dragon dance” represent dragons, and watching Precious Auntie flying around on wires and singing about being a ghost in a huge, stiff white fright wig gets old quick. There are some lovely and funny moments along the way, but its 160 minutes get to be tedious, and Tan’s inspiring prose feels insipid when reduced to poetic platitudes. As Chinese-American family sagas go, give me the low-rent send-up in the pizzeria basement any day.