Published in the Asbury Park Press, April 27 2018
While it doesn’t boast any sort of official stock company, New Jersey Repertory has, over the course of its twenty seasons in Long Branch, cultivated some long-standing relationships with a core crop of actors, directors and playwrights — repeat collaborators whose appearances have served as a reassuring hallmark of quality, and a mutually beneficial thing for all concerned.
With the current world premiere production of Chloe Hung’s Issei, He Say, some new faces have arrived in town — and those newcomers have a compelling story to tell; one of blinding prejudice, national tragedies, home-front secrets, and the things people use to forge alliances in the darkness, whether shared struggles or silly sitcoms.
It’s an American story for sure, albeit one that plays out on a quiet block of a suburban Toronto street during the late 1960s — onetime home turf of the (now LA-based) Chinese-Canadian playwright and TV writer, who drew from some of her own family members’ experiences in crafting this script. It’s to the Scarborough district that the Chu family has emigrated from Hong Kong, having traded their life there for a “sad” and poorly stocked little store run by the rather disagreeable Mr. Chu (Fenton Li) and his wife Vivian, a former factory worker who struggles with her command of English, and who harbors dreams of returning to school to learn textile design. Completing the household is daughter Lucy (Christina Liang), an insecure 12 year old whose tense relationship with her parents is compounded by the bullying and embarrassment she experiences regularly at school.
Having bypassed the city’s Chinatown community in favor of their lily-white neighborhood, the recent arrivals just happen to have set up house within inches of Mr. Yamamoto (Stan Egi), a gardener of Japanese birth, and a good-humored graybeard whose cheerful daily greetings go unacknowledged by the grumbling Chu. Rather than finding common ground with his sole Asian neighbor, the storekeeper makes it clear that he holds Yamamoto — a longtime resident whose time in Canada has included a forced relocation to a wartime internment camp — personally responsible for atrocities visited upon Chinese nationals by the Japanese military.
The female members of the Chu household establish an altogether different dynamic with the aging gardener, whose own wife and daughter were long ago repatriated back to Japan. Vivian, uncomfortable among the casserole-bearing housewives of the new neighborhood, finds in the proximity to Yamamoto a newfound license to let loose in song and dance and the pursuit of dreams — while young Lucy finds in the old man her only real friend and confidante; a sympathetic presence whose wisdom has been shaped by his own experiences as an “issei” (first generation) immigrant. When Mr. Chu is forced by circumstance into taking time off work (and retreating into a TV-land existence of “Gilligan’s Island” and “General Hospital”), it’s implicit that Yamamoto is there to take up much of the slack, from shoveling snow to dispensing valuable life advice — a state of affairs as fragile as that Japanese maple planted far too late in the season.
Things come to a head, as they inevitably must, out there on the snowy sidewalks of that prolonged Canadian winter; the adults dropping all remaining pretense of civility and revealing the invisible scar tissue of wartime grief, loss, and estrangement. It’s a powerful second-act climax, for which the actors — particularly Egi and Kwan — step up and take their characters to some unexpected places (of course Li’s Mr. Chu, in his stubborn consistency, can be said to be the most honest of the grownups in the room). It’s also the start of a late-stage journey that takes us momentarily far afield of that suburban Scarborough street — only to wind up back at the doorstep, in a perfect little ending.
Lisa James, herself a fellow newcomer to the NJ Rep fold, directs this study of sprawling issues and compact cast with a facility that stresses the universality of its greater themes. While the play’s Asian characters carry the specific weights of their families’ tragedies and dogged demons — and the Canadian setting is reinforced by multiple references to former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and the national anthem — it’s an instantly recognizable immigrant’s tale in its details of citizenship tests, confounding new languages, and old-country concoctions that would never pass muster in the judgmental environment of the school bake sale. In the central role of Lucy, the adult actress Liang does a remarkable job of channeling a lonely pre-teen beset by crises at home, school, and neighborhood streets.
Precisely structured and wonderfully executed, Issei, He Say serves as a helpful reminder that the folks next door, whoever they may seem to be, have their own stories to tell — whether they choose to share them or not. The production continues Thursdays through Sundays until May 20, with full schedule details and ticket info available by calling (732)229-3166 or visiting njrep.org —and watch this space for news on an exciting project at NJ Rep’s new West End Arts Center; a festival salute to novelist/playwright Edna Ferber that features new adaptations of the author’s stories, and a first-ever performance of a “lost” Ferber script.