Christina Liang, Stan Egi, Kathleen Kwan and Fenton Li are featured in ISSEI, HE SAY, the play by Chloe Hung that makes its world premiere this weekend at New Jersey Repertory Company. (Photo by SuzAnne Barabas)

Published in the Asbury Park Press, April 20 2018

“It’s what we think of as the American Dream…work hard, and all your dreams will come true,” says playwright Chloe Hung of Issei, He Say, the four-character drama that makes its world premiere this weekend at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. “But it’s not like that at all.”

Subtitled “The Myth of the First,” the play that was workshopped before audiences at DC’s John F. Kennedy Center ‘breaks the myth” of immigrant families inspiring their first-generation offspring toward easy assimilation and success, by “exploring how you don’t really know what it’s like until you get there.”

The American Dream — or, more to the point, the North American Dream — is examined here through the experiences of 13 year old Lucy Chu (Christina Liang), a recent arrival whose parents (Kathleen Kwan, Fenton Li) have recently emigrated from Hong Kong to a suburban community in Canada. Set in the late 1960s — a time when the wounds of the Second World War were far from healed — the script is “semi-based” on the playwright’s own grandparents, mother and other relatives, and their experiences as residents of Toronto’s Scarborough district.

Speaking from New Orleans, where she was observing the filming of her first produced script for the Ava DuVernay series Queen Sugar (the episode is due to air in late June on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network), the Chinese-Canadian writer and current resident of Los Angeles describes her play as a story of “four people, of different ages and different stages of life, struggling with what it means to be from somewhere else, and to move to a new place.”

The fourth person in this equation is the Chu family’s next door neighbor, Mr. Yamamoto (Stan Egi) — a Japanese immigrant (or “issei”) who has lived in Canada for many years; several of them as a resident of a wartime internment camp (and yes, they had such things north of the border as well). Having seen his wife and daughter repatriated back to Japan, Yamamoto is a lonely soul in his mostly-white neighborhood — but his attempts to recapture a sense of “family” through the family next door are met with the blind hostility of Mr. Chu, who holds his innocent neighbor single-handedly responsible for the Japanese army’s atrocities during the siege of Nanking.

Reaching out through the barrier of prejudice and tension is young Lucy, whose unhappy experiences at school find a sympathetic ear in the middle-aged man who “has a perspective that her parents don’t have…he’s the most understanding of what she’s going through.”

As the playwright explains it, Issei does carry its share of lighter moments —much of which springs from her grandmother, a woman she’s described as “tough, strong, with a wicked sense of humor.” As for young Lucy — an amalgam of her mother plus four additional aunts and uncles — “for the purposes of this play I needed one voice…and her personality is probably my own creation!”

“It’s been really great to see this play come to life,” Hung says of the production under the direction of another west coast-based newcomer to the NJ Repertory fold, Lisa James. “Gabe (Barabas, co-founder and executive producer at NJ Rep) really connected with it, because of his own experiences as an immigrant from Hungary…and I’ve gotten similar feedback from people of all different backgrounds.”

Issei, He Say previews on April 20 at 8 p.m., with the show opening on Saturday night, April 21, continuing on April 22 and then Thursdays through Sundays until May 20. Full schedule details and ticket reservations ($46; opening night $60) are available by calling 732-229-3166 or visiting njrep.org.