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Christopher Chen talks about his latest puzzle of a play, which is having its world premiere at Lincoln Center
Henry (Aaron Yoo), the narrator and central character of The Headlands at Lincoln Center Theater, is a San Francisco software engineer with an unusual hobby: He likes to investigate cold cases for kicks. At the outset of the play, he cheerfully lays out the details of an unsolved murder he's been looking into, and he gets the audience totally hooked before revealing that the victim happened to be his father. That's the first of many surprises the playwright, Christopher Chen, has up his sleeve. "It's all about setting up one thing, then pulling the rug out," he says.
Those familiar with Chen's other plays won't be that shocked since he's a master of slippery narratives that take you down unanticipated paths. His Obie-winning play about art and truth, Caught, which ran at La MaMa, was likened to a Russian nesting doll, and Passage at Soho Rep. was a complex meditation on how colonialism wreaks havoc on the lives of the occupied and the occupiers. "My plays, at least in my mind, try to mimic an individual's psychological, philosophical and spiritual journey through very knotty territory," explains Chen. "The character doesn't know the journey they're about to take, or they have certain expectations that are then upended, so the audience coming in is kind of at the same place."
Chen's journey to playwriting was also unexpected. Born and raised in San Francisco where he continues to live, he recalls getting the "theatrical bug" early. "I put on puppet shows for my parents when I was a little kid," he says. But other creative passions pulled him in different directions. "As a teenager and going into college, I was kind of in an artistic identity crisis," he admits. "I was dabbling in short story writing, in filmmaking, in poetry. I actually entered UC Berkeley as a music major intending to do composition. Then I joined this Asian American theatre group called Theatre Rice."
Inspired to take courses in acting and directing "for fun," Chen, who ultimately earned an MFA from San Francisco State University, says he "stumbled upon playwriting as this happy medium that combines all of my different loves: the spectacle of cinema, the literary aspect and also the musicality." His disparate influences are evident in The Headlands, which borrows heavily from film noir, particularly Vertigo and The Maltese Falcon (which were both set in San Francisco after all); features evocative projections of the Bay Area, including interior shots of Chen's house; and uses music theory to illuminate the inner lives of its characters.
On the surface, The Headlands may seem like a murder mystery, but it's less a quest for justice than an exploration of questions we all have about our respective pasts: How well do we really know our families? How much can we trust our childhood memories?
The play is also the story of Henry's relationship with the city of San Francisco, long a haven for Asian immigrants (like Chen's father, who emigrated from China) that's being rapidly transformed by gentrification. "I've lived in San Francisco all my life," Chen says. "I've seen the changes that have occurred. A lot of the excitement and the funkiness of San Francisco have gone away, and yet, just because all my memories of childhood are connected to the place, I feel nostalgia for it, even though I still reside there. I am kind of living in a memory space."
Commissioned and produced by Lincoln Center Theater's LCT3 program, The Headlands is the first of Chen's plays to premiere in New York City—somewhat ironic considering how much its plot and themes owe to his hometown, where most of his other shows have originated.
"I feel like if I had started out in New York, I might be responding to other peoples' work more, even subconsciously, so if anyone thinks my work is unique, I think a factor of that might be my geographical isolation," Chen says. Not that San Francisco's theatre scene is a wasteland. "It's very vibrant—it still feels exciting and fresh, kind of like the Wild West. You can try anything, and there's no expectation of what things should be. I really felt—especially with some of my early works—that I was able to experiment, and there was a real appetite for it."
One element that all his plays have in common is that "the material is extrapolated from the personal in some way or another," says Chen, though fear not, his real-life father was not killed. "It's taking little tiny things, subtle things and then exploding them. I'm always interested in putting myself out there. In every single character, I try to find some germ of myself."
Regina Robbins is a writer, director, native New Yorker and Jeopardy! champion. She has worked with several NYC-based theatre companies and is currently a Core Company Member with Everyday Inferno Theatre.
Top image: Aaron Yoo in The Headlands. Photos by Kyle Froman.
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