Saturday 12th October 2013, matinée
In a promotional interview for ‘Golden Child’, David Henry Hwang mentions that his work is not very well known in the UK compared to the US. He is not being falsely modest – our only chance to see ‘Golden Child’, a play he wrote in 1998, is in a ten day run (now sadly over) at the New Diorama Theatre, in collaboration with True Heart Theatre. We were very glad of any opportunity to add to our knowledge of Hwang’s plays since seeing his fantastic Yellowface at the Park Theatre recently.
Never has the cliché that truth is stranger than fiction been more apt than in the inception of this play. The ten year old Hwang, on learning that his maternal grandmother had taken ill, begged his parents to let him travel from his native Los Angeles to the Philippines to spend the Summer with her finding out about the history of his family. Not only is the precocity of the young writer remarkable, but so is the story he unearthed, revisiting the material many years later to create a play (and in a pleasing coda his grandmother lived to see it performed). The play centres on the character of Ahn, who appears both as the modern day narrator of the story and the ‘golden child’ of the title. Set mostly in 1918-9, she tells the story of her father, Tieng Bin, who, having spent many years trading in the Philippines, decides to return home to China and convert to Christianity. This is just the start of his problems, not least of which is the question of who amongst his three wives will ‘win’ and become is sole Christian spouse. This is just the starting point in a play which asks deep questions about culture and belief. Tieng Bin has seen another world and feels that through conversion he will be able to express himself as an individual rather than being weighed down by a sense of duty and a culture of ancestor worship, and he hopes to ‘marry’ his third wife, the one he chose for himself and whom he truly loves. She, however, unlike her scheming fellow wives, cannot bear to give up the old religion, and tragically he is left with the wife whose conversion was just a facade to enhance her position.
This play tackles a subject which is clearly close to David Henry Hwang’s heart, but the perceptiveness and curiosity he brings to his work raises it above mere autobiography. He seeks out the complexity of the issues, for example, he poses the question, if only those who know about Jesus can go to hell, are missionaries responsible for sending more people to hell than they save through spreading the word? We also learn that had Ahn’s father not intervened, she might have had her feet bound, reminding us how shocking it is that these practices went on almost in living memory. He simultaneously celebrates and condemns his great grandfather for the same things – opening his mind to new cultures, and then tyrannically imposing them on his family.
This production, in a small and intimate venue, cannot rely on showy sets. There is minimal set and lighting, but there is still a sense of authenticity with elaborate costumes and a sense of ritual and ceremony, evoking a very particular culture. None of the wives get up from the floor without the help of a servant, for example (another reminder that with bound feet they would have found it impossible without assistance). Some of the blocking was a little obscure, for example, having characters speak to their ancestors with their backs to the audience, although this may just have been the best use of a limited space. Occasionally the scene changes were a little ponderous. But where this production really excelled was in creating an atmosphere of oppression where nobody could really speak their mind for fear of losing face. As Tieng Bin’s three wives, Lourdes Faberes, Tuyen Do and Yuna Shin all portray deep and painful emotions with huge restraint, making the denouement all the more affecting. Jacqueline Chan has more freedom as Ahn, as she flits between portraying an old woman and a small child, and maintains both a childlike playfulness and an old person’s wisdom at the same time. Her desire to ‘save’ her grandson’s soul for Jesus is particularly touching. Siu Hun Li also doubles as his own great grandson. His portrayal of the man who wants to do good for his family and fails (except perhaps in the case of his daughter) is full of intelligence and humour as well as despair. Sid Phoenix plays the reverend Baines, and in a stroke of genius from Hwang, he speaks in broken English throughout to show how bad his Chinese is. We see him through Chinese eyes, and he is a brilliant straight man, endearingly confident in his beliefs.
‘Golden Child’ has enthused us with the idea of seeing more of Hwang’s work and we were excited to read in the programme that he has a new play coming out in 2014, ‘Kung Fu’, based on the story of Bruce Lee. Let’s hope it doesn’t take fifteen years for that one to reach the UK, although we can always pass the time waiting for revivals of some of his other major works, for example his reworking of ‘Flower Drum Song’, or M.Butterfly. Anybody?