Monday, December 05, 2011


The first word that came to my mind after seeing David Henry Hwang's Ch'inglish, currently running at the Longacre, was "solid." I meant it, I thought to myself, in only the most satisfying, positive way: the play, its players, the direction, lighting, scenery, sound design and costumes balanced one another beautifully; the show was entertaining and engaging; I had a good time. In one word, then: "solid."

But then the inner dialogue began, and with it, doubts about my choice of words, and thus my initial reaction. Because really, if you think about it, "solid," at least the way it's often used in mainstream American parlance, is not necessarily the kindest or most effusive descriptor one might have come up with. "Solid?" my inner doubts began to nag at me. "SOLID? Not 'excellent'? Not 'brilliant'? Not 'sublime'? Merely 'solid'--as in 'good,' or 'reliable' but nothing more than that?"

By the time I got home from the theater, I was almost angry at myself for allowing the word "solid" to have even entered my mind.
Admittedly, I don't always obsess over a single word the way I did after leaving the Longacre theater last week, but then again, Ch'inglish is a show that's all about language. And how language contributes not only to understanding--cross-cultural and otherwise--but also how it adds to the absolute mess that is culture, let alone cross-culture, in the first place. If you think about it--and I have, a lot, since seeing the show--language not only influences gender, class, and racial politics, but it also allows us to cultivate both the masks we wear for others and the characters we convince ourselves that we are. Less obvious, perhaps, is the fact that language can actually hinder communication as often as it can aid it.

As a playwright, Hwang is no stranger to themes relating to culture, persona, and the fluidity of identity--he wrestled with them all in M. Butterfly, the show that put him on the map in 1988, and in Face Value, which I saw in previews in 1993, and which, alas, never managed to open. Ch'inglish revisits all of these themes, but places them in a broader, transglobal perspective.

I read some review, somewhere, that likened Ch'inglish to a wacky sitcom, and in some ways, it is--but only on the very surface: A naive American businessman named Daniel Cavanaugh (Gary Wilmes) decides to expand his Ohio-based sign-making company, and thus attempts to make inroads by branching out into the "small" city of Guiyang (4 million), China. He hires an interpreter, Peter Timms (Stephen Pucci), and begins to negotiate with the minister of culture, Cai Guoliang (Larry Lei Zhang). Initially raising fierce opposition to Cavanaugh's very presence is the assistant culture minister, Xi Yan (Jennifer Lim, in hands-down one of the most extraordinary, fascinating performances I've seen in, like, forever), who, soon enough, grows closer to Cavanaugh than anyone else involved in the negotiations. Nothing is quite what it seems; wackiness ensues. Hence the sitcom comparisons.

Yet the show wrestles with so many tangled, confusing, fascinating themes that it's likely to burrow its way into your psyche in ways that a vast majority of wacky sitcoms can't. It's funny, yes, but it also questions language and cultural constructs, and shines new light on the ways in which these things help and hinder communication and understanding--of both ourselves and others.

Alas, Ch'inglish has no big stars or pyrotechnics, and thus is not likely to last as long as it deserves to. When I saw it, the refreshingly multicultural house was not-so-refreshingly half-empty. So see it soon, if you can--it deserves your attention, and demands that you doubt the ways you think about it long after you've exited the theater.

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