The core of us
Many plays staged by Community Asian Theatre of the Sierra are immigration stories about families crossing the Pacific to California.
David Henry Hwang’s Golden Child, however, is something else—a story about modern/Western ideas moving into traditional Chinese culture. Largely set in 1918, the play features a progressive landowner (Hock Tjoa) who traveled abroad and embraced Western notions about individualism.
To the horror of his three wives (who don’t entirely get along), the landowner is exploring Christianity, which initially plays as light comedy but becomes more serious as the play progresses (practicing Christians acknowledge only one wife per husband).
To make matters worse, the landowner—despite the fact that he finds women with “huge feet” unattractive—orders First Wife (Yukiko Ohse) to stop binding the feet of their precocious pre-teen daughter.
Tjoa taps into the landowner’s compassion and desire for knowledge, and also his inner conflict, as he tries to reconcile traditional ancestor worship with new ways.
First Wife, an arranged spouse, retreats into opium when a “white devil” Anglican missionary (John Fisher) arrives. Second Wife (Lisa Moon) schemes to advance herself. Third Wife (Cacie Mularchuk), the pretty girl that the landowner picked for himself, comes from poverty and can’t grasp the depth of the change underway.
Through it all, the playwright asks, “What is it that makes you Chinese?” and “How do you adapt your identity in a time of rapid, radical and inevitable change—coming from outside?” We Americans face a similar situation today. Hwang presents this play in a historic context, but the core agenda hits us where we live.
The CATS production features an elaborate, multilevel set, depicting Chinese pavilions supported by stately red columns. The costumes recall silk fashions from 100 years ago. Last Friday’s opening performance featured a few more line glitches and little snafus than other recent CATS productions, which tend to be pretty polished. But director Sandra Rockman’s take on the script is savvy, and the show grows on you as the story unfolds.