Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Charles Francis Chan Jr.'s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery
Flash forward to Oakland, California, in 1967 where Berkeley undergrad Charlie Francis Chan Jr. (Eric Sharp)or Frank, as he prefers to be calledis fed up with professors and lectures which marginalize, stereotype or erase Asians in American history and culture. Having had enough, he drops out of school. He's in his early 20s, it's 1967, and when we first meet him, he's being interviewed at a draft inspection. Guess what happens.
Lloyd Suh's Charles Francis Chan Jr.'s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery, as staged by Theatre Mu Artistic Director Randy Reyes, is an intelligent, creative, surprising, sometimes moving, and often frustrating play that makes for a consistently entertaining evening of theater. I loved the show. I found the characters interesting and richly realized by an absolutely stellar cast, led by Sharp. It is also seriously refreshing to see a play that deals cogently with serious, important, complex social issues without exuding piety or demanding it on the part of its audience. Here, the tragic and the absurd are inextricable, as they quite commonly are in life (perhaps especially at this moment). At times, Suh's manic protagonist seems like a younger, Asian version of Larry David. But the fact that he's somewhat deficient in gravitas doesn't make his torment any less real or justified.
At other times, Frank's the guy with the hand over his eyes, sitting in the student lounge at 2:00 am, mumbling to himself loudly as he throws down the book he's been reading. He's the gadfly-in-waiting; you try not to walk too close to him lest he finds a way to draw you into the dizzying stream of post-post-something jargon that flows ceaselessly from his lips. But the thing that makes it impossible to dismiss Frank's tantrums as self-indulgence is that every single word he speaks is true.
Through verbal exchanges, several searing monologues and even, at one point, a slideshow featuring old newspaper cartoons and headlines rife with racist slurs, we are reminded of just how horrific cultural representations of Asians and Asian Americans have been all throughout American history. The Chinese were the last group to get citizenship. They were lynched and, like other groups of Asian-Americans, subject to ruthless exploitation. The Japanese were interned during World War Two. When Frank's draft officer asks him for his birthdate, he tells him that he was born on Hiroshima Day.
Admittedly, Frank's long, jargon-filled speeches can get a little tiresome. But Eric Sharp brings such wild energy and charisma to the role that, most of the time, you can't help but be dragged along when he (Frank) goes off on one of his riffs. Sharp subtly gestures to the neediness and latent innocence that underlies Frank's anger. It is a neediness that breaks opens into aching vulnerability in the play's more serious moments. Sharp's performance is a tour de force; it ranks with the best acting I've seen this year.
Eventually, Frank meets the love of his life, a woman named Kathy (the immensely likeable Hope Nordquist in an elegant, nuanced performance). Kathy is a hip, neurotic intellectual who, as it turns out, gets Frank. He tells her he wants to create an empowering Asian-American (he coins the term) movement. How? By writing a play! The play will be the manifesto of a people! With Kathy game, they agree to collaborate on the project.
Lucerne Seifert, who, like all the actors, plays multiple roles, also shines in this play. He is particularly good in a dark, pantomime-like scene in which Sergeant (Frank's draft officer) grotesquely transforms himself into Charlie Chan. Seifert enters the stage in silence and sits down at an actor's make-up table, immersed in painfully bright white light. He looks at his face in the mirror and slowly pencils in Charlie Chan's big black eyebrows, he lines his eyes, and then, very, very slowly, almost balletically, sponges on the yellow pancake makeup. Seifert rises from the table, puts on a bright white suit jacket and Charlie Chan's "Chinaman" cap and (yes) bows. "Ah so," he whispers, and you want to weep. It's shattering.
When Kathy finds out that Frank has recruited his draft inspector, Sergeant, to play Charlie Chan in a play within the play that they are collaborating on, she's furious. What's this big white guy in yellow-face doing in a play about Asian-American empowerment? Frank argues that you can only overcome stereotypes by exposing them in all their ugliness. But stereotypes aren't real, Kathy objects.
But then they are, at least to white racists like Sergeant. To prove it, Frank coaxes Sergeant into laying bare everything that he really thinks about Asians. Seifert is once again riveting as he exposes layer after layer of prejudice, all the way down to the fundamental, perversely narcissistic claim: the claim to model human-ness and to define it as something that falls along a declining scale that emanates from the racist's ethnic group to everyone else. I see what you mean, Kathy concedes.
Frank is astute when he's wrestling with historical persecution and cultural erasure of Asian Americans. He has less insight into his personal baggage. Frank has problems with romantic relationships, writer's block, and some very serious daddy issues. But then, how can you really isolate the personal from history? One of the things that Suh does well is to evoke how deeply and relentlessly the spheres of personal and cultural-historical intersect.
"White racism murdered my father," Frank says. "He got hit by a train," his older brother (whose name is also Charles Chan Jr.) responds; he was drunk. But then, what drove Charles Sr. to drink in the first place? What made him crave oblivion?
One of the most touching scenes in the play occurs when Frank confronts the ghost of his immigrant father (Seifert again.). The elder Charles had been trained in the Peking Opera, but after coming to America, he had been reduced to playing horrible Asian stereotypes in a vaudeville show. Frank approaches his ghost-father with a samurai sword in hand (yes, he knows, it's Japanese but ...) and accuses him of betraying his culture and his family. The ghost asks to be heard. Yes, he was ashamed to have degraded himself and his heritage. Yes, it was shameful and indecent. But then he had sons (all of whom were also named Charles Chan) to support. Charles Sr.'s ghost begs Frank to forgiven him, and to try to find a way to live a life of less shame. At which point Frank embraces the ghost, redirects his anger to white racist culture, and vows to avenge the old man. Frank slits the ghost's throat with the sword anyway, necessary psychologically for the character, I guess, but also, it must be said, it is good theatre. The many, various scenes between Sharp and Seifert are on their own worth the price of admission.
The latter half of the play centers around a Charlie Chan mystery play. Sergeant plays Chan in yellow-face while all the white characters in the play (police officers, the victim, the victims wife) are played by the Asian characters. And the victim's name? Biggers! At one point, too, Charlie Chan states that he is Bigger's son. (Get it?)
Okay, Suh can sound just a tiny bit too clever at moments. But the more serious problem is that the play lacks a through-line. I don't mind the sudden narrative shifts, the jumping between locations or back and forth in time and place. The lack of resolution is tolerable. But if you're going to introduce multiple plotlines and relationships, you want to weave the threads, or at least most of the threads, together at some point. This weave has way too many loose ones. At moments, especially in the second act, Charles Francis Chan Jr.'s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery seems like a dozen or so really beautifully written ten-minute plays strung together in no particular order. The end of the play risks narrative incoherence.
But here's the thing: So what? Charles Francis Chan Jr.'s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery truly is a thrilling ride. It is chock-full of richly theatrical moments. The actors, under Reyes' direction, do incredible ensemble work. It is smart and irreverent and profound and heartbreaking all at the same time. Get to the Dowling and catch this latest gem from Theater Mu.
Mu Performing Arts' Charles Francis Chan Jr.'s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery, through May 28, 2017, at the Guthrie Theater, 818 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis, MN 55415. Tickets are available by calling 612-377-2224 or at www.muperformingarts.org/.
Directed by Randy Reyes