Theater review by Melissa Rose Bernardo
In his 2018 play The Chinese Lady, Lloyd Suh introduced us to Afong Moy, reportedly the first Chinese woman to set foot in the U.S., who was displayed like a curio for paying audiences. In The Far Country, whose premiere at the Atlantic is directed by Eric Ting, he digs into a later period of Asian-American history: the aftermath of 1882’s Chinese Exclusion Act. But this is no staid history class. In just over two hours, Suh succinctly and humorously covers 21 years, two continents, two interrogations and two obscenely expensive trans-Pacific crossings from Taishan to San Francisco.
Gee (Jinn S. Kim), having secured American citizenship, has returned to his farming village, where he offers to take the teenage Moon Gyet (Eric Yang) back to the States with him—for a hefty price. “The cost, based on fair market value, is $100 for every year of age,”he explains to the boy’s mother, Low (Amy Kim Waschke). “The price shall be $1,600. To be paid ten percent now and the rest I will recoup from his wages until the debt is fully paid.” Moon Gyet is to work in Gee’s laundry to pay off the fee, pretending to be his son. The whole scenario is “grossly illegal”—as Yuen (the completely delightful Shannon Tyo) points out when Moon Gyet returns years later to make her a similar offer. “This is not how I imagined my marriage proposal would transpire,” she quips.
The trip is a major risk emotionally as well as financially. We soon learn that the Bay Area’s Angel Island, often erroneously described as the Ellis Island of the West, was very much a detention center. In one of countless interrogations, an inspector (Ben Chase) hammers Moon Gyet with rapidfire questions about the tiniest details, over and over and over, in hope that he will slip up and forget some detail. (“Your friend, who visited your house when you were nine, what was the name of his family's mule?”) There are hundreds of men in the immigration station, sharing a single lavatory, and Moon Gyet is there for 17 months.
In addition to such painful details, Suh includes small moments of beauty. “The walls of the second-floor men’s barracks at Angel Island Immigration Station are sacred,” explains one man (Whit K. Lee). “They contain the hearts and minds of those detained there.” Suh describes the writing and carvings—the “delicate calligraphy” that forms “careful volumes of almost invisible poetry”—and, almost magically, they begin covering every wall of Clint Ramos’s dreamlike set. Most of those walls were painted over, their signs of life erased, but a few were preserved and still exist today. That could almost be a play unto itself.
The Far Country. Atlantic Theater Company (Off Broadway). By Lloyd Suh. Directed by Eric Ting. With Eric Yang, Shannon Tyo, Jinn S. Kim, Amy Kim Waschke, Ben Chase, Whit K. Lee, Christopher Liam Moore. Running time: 2hr 10 mins.
The Far Country | Photograph: Courtesy Ahron R. Foster