Written by Frank Chin
Directed by Michael Shin
In the Mather House Dining Hall
Through this weekend
"CHINAMEN are made, not born, my dear," exclaims Tam Lum, the protagonist of Frank Chin's The Chickencoop Chinaman. Chin's drama, Harvard's first Asian American theatrical production, explores this angry youth's problemmatic quest for cultural identity.
Tam Lum (Hyunjune Seung) is a Chinese American filmmaker who evades his Asian roots yet also refuses to assimilate into mainstream American culture. Instead, Tam strives to establish a Black American identity. He adopts an urban Black speech pattern, gives "high fives" rather than shaking hands, and chooses as his idol a Black boxer named Ovaltine.
Through the course of the play, Tam and his Japanese sidekick, "Blackjap" Kenji (Edward Park), confront the disappointing reality behind their romantic conceptions of both white and Black America. In a comically surreal dream sequence their childhood hero, the Lone Ranger, is exposed as a heroine-addicted, racist fraud. Their long-awaited meeting with Ovaltine's Black trainer, Charley Popcorn, proves disillusioning as well--offended by their Black mannerisms, the old man dismisses the duo as a pair of insane "yellow negroes."
By rejecting both his heritage and mainstream America Tam attempts to become a cultural hero, leading disciples such as Kenji along the path to a new and rebellious racial identity. As Chin's drama unfolds, however, Tam's "Blackness" is exposed as a cowardly means of escape. He is nothing more than a pathetic "Chickencoop Chinaman," trapped by both America's prejudices and his own biases against his Asian roots.
Director Michael Shin has complemented Chin's ambitious play with a complicated set design which utilizes two formal stages as well the seating area. While Shin's staging demonstrates creative imagination, its complexity too often distracts from the action of the play itself. The program provides a long list of instructions advising the audience when to face forward and when to turn their chairs backward in order to follow scenes.
Hyunjune Seung and Edward Park give inspired performances in their demanding roles. Unfortunately, Seung's accent, which at times sounds more generically southern than Black, tends to obscure the clarity of his speech, adding an unneeded element of confusion to Chin's already complex dialogue. On the whole, these two expressive performances stand out as the only signs of true life on the stage. With the exception of Norbert Seals, who is charmingly comic as Charley Popcorn, the supporting cast is flat.
Though uneven and occassionally incoherent, The Chickencoop Chinaman deserves praise as a bold and ambitious project. It may not be an outstanding dramatic production, but it is an intriguing cultural event.