A ten-year-old Chinese girl screams in agony when her bound feet are released from their restraints in Golden Child, David Henry Hwang’s Obie-winning play from 1996. The idea that rebirth, even when welcome, is fraught with great pain pulses through this rich, bracingly affecting work inspired by the story of how Hwang’s family converted to Christianity. As is often the case with director Leigh Silverman, the production’s greatest rewards are found in the quietest of character moments.
The Signature’s latest resident playwright, Hwang sets the majority of Golden Child in 1918–19 China, where polygamous patriarch Eng Tieng-Bin (Greg Watanabe) has just returned after three years abroad—and brought Christianity with him. Watanabe imbues Tieng-Bin with the zeal of an innocent biting into forbidden fruit, but his decision creates much consternation for his traditional first wife, Siu-Yong (Julyana Soelistyo, steely and serene), and young third wife, Eling (Lesley Hu), the one he truly loves. Opportunistic second wife Luan (Jennifer Lim), however, spies a chance to move up in the ranks, while Ahn (Annie Q., wonderfully enchanting), Tieng-Bin’s daughter and the golden child of the title, finds her world forever changed.
Hwang, who also sees plenty of humor in the East-West divide, bookends the play with two scenes set in 1968 Manila, between an elderly Ahn (also played by Q.) and her grandson (Watanabe) as they try to come to terms with the past. Did Tieng-Bin destroy his family or set them free? It’s left to his descendants to discover clarity amid the convoluted muddle of ancestry.—Diane Snyder