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All in the Family

Date: May 20, 2009


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Imagine a play about a dysfunctional family gathering to sort through the wreckage after the aging patriarch has suddenly left the scene. After partly reverting to their childhood roles and reliving old squabbles, the absent father’s adult children begin to realize the need to get past blaming everything on their parents.

Yes, Lloyd Suh’s new family comedy/drama American Hwangap, opening next week in a co-production by The Play Company and the Ma-Yi Theatre Company, may initially sound a bit like an Asian-American version of the Pulitzer-winning Broadway hit August: Osage County, but the similarities are only superficial. For one thing, Min Suk Chun, the patriarch in Suh’s play, made his wounding disappearance decades before; it his abrupt decision to return from Korea to celebrate his traditional 60th birthday, a ritual called “hwangap,” with his Korean-American family that precipitates the play’s action.

Also, says Michi Barall, who plays one of his adult daughters, the tone is not nearly as bleak as August: Osage County, and the subject both is and is not the doubleness of the immigrant experience.

“It’s deceptive, because it seems like an American family drama, and it has a way of reaching American audiences that way,” says Barall, who has been working on the play with the author and the Ma-Yi company since its early drafts. “But many maps get overlaid onto that—issues about immigration, about Korean independence from Japan, about the division of two Koreas. In a way, the play continues to fold out, and you don’t always necessarily know where you are, and that’s a really good thing. It positions the audience and the family in a sort of new terrain.”

The play does start in a place of rupture: “A lot of the characters are stuck in the past,” Barall explains. “It’s a broken family, and it’s kind of still frozen at the moment when the father left.” The fracture may be heightened by cultural pressures unique to Asian-Americans, who typically have more reverence for elders than in the therapeutic get-it-all-out culture of the contemporary U.S.

“Here it’s socially acceptable to say in conversation that your parents wrecked your life,” Barall marvels. The kind of openness about feelings, good or bad, encouraged by American culture can create “enormous tension between parents and children in terms of attitudes children have toward their parents.” Such misunderstandings are often the inevitable price of a move: “It’s interesting when families relocate; the parents sometimes forget that their kids are being raised inside a different model.”

Though Barall’s roots are in Japan, by way of Canada, and other members of the cast have heritages ranging from Filipino to Chinese, there are two Korean Americans actors in the company, Hoon Lee (Yellow Face) and Peter Kim (Thoroughly Modern Millie). Along with playwright Suh, they helped the other actors with issues of what Barall calls “culturally specific representation, where it’s really helpful to have an actor who’s gone through that.”

The time has long gone since this kind of cross-Asian casting created its own share of tension.

“When I started doing theatre, there was much more anxiety: ‘Oh God, I’m not Chinese and I’m playing a Chinese character.’ After a while you drop that, and it forces you to created a line of communication with other people.” Another complication of special relevance to a new generation of Asian-Americans artists is that a growing number are adoptees raised by white people. “The idea of culture and race have become dislocated, and I think that’s a good thing,” Barall says.

In a larger sense, though, what Asian Americans share is not so much cultural specifics as a common “experience of race, based on how people see you as belonging to a particular group,” says Barall. “I don’t think there’s a unified identity. The shared experience among us is in being hyphenated, in participating in an awareness that there is more than one culture, not just a monoculture.”

That shared experience of doubleness surfaces in Ma-Yi’s ongoing playwrights lab, which Suh leads and in which Barall presents her own writing alongside that of her peers.

“We have a kind of group identity, but in a way our experience of culture and race forms a bridge across different cultural styles,” Barall says. “Some of us in the lab write to Asian-American themes, and some don’t at all. One thing that unites us, that creates a kind of comfort zone, is that from the outside these cultures can be seen as ‘exotic,’ and there’s a kind of irony about that in the Asian-American culture and an ambivalence about representation.”

Lest anyone think that Asian-American playwrights—or any ethnically defined writers, for that matter—are engaged in some kind of self-empowering subcultural doodling, nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, they’re pursuing one of the great missions of their art form.

“Finding ways to communicate across cultural lines is the work of the theatre,” says Barall. “It’s a place to imagine other realities.”

That, Barall says, is what Suh has done with the funny, bittersweet, ultimately hopeful American Hwangap.

“I would venture to say that this play lives in the in-between spaces between cultures, but the spaces it describes are not just about family and culture and history. What comes through is the great love that Lloyd has for this family. There’s a lot of anger at the family feeling orphaned by the father, and Lloyd shows the impact of that leave-taking. But this family has a longing for a certain kind of rootedness.

“That’s probably an Asian-American thing, this understanding of the distances you have to cross to come to America and the things you have to drop on the way, but also the longing to bring your culture with you and to find roots for it in American soil. That’s grounded in real feeling and a kind of hopefulness. That’s also where the comedy is.”
Click here for more information about American Hwangap.