This Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, Columbia Blue Glaze Theatre presents the Broadway comedy Chinglish. Advertised by the cast as “a wonderful night with fun and happiness,” Bwogger Joanna Zhang was eager to report on Thursday evening’s performance.
Upon walking into Lerner’s Austin E. Quigley Black Box Theatre, my first thought was that this was the most Asian people I’d ever seen in one room at Columbia. Of course, there were some non-Asians peppered in the mix–kudos to you guys, Chinese culture is awesome.
Before I go into an extended analysis of the show, I should provide some background. Chinglish is a play written by David Henry Hwang, Tony Award-winner and director of the theater playwriting concentration at Columbia School of the Arts. The play tells the story of an American businessman trying to establish his sign-making company in China, and in the process he receives a crash course on what the Chinese call “guan xi,” aka, pulling connections. Columbia’s production is directed by Evangeline Zhang, with Columbia Blue Glaze Theatre, a group established last fall to promote cultural diversity.
The show begins with Daniel, the businessman, (played by Gabriel Acevedo) showing the audience a series of horribly translated Chinese signs such as “Fall Carefully,” instead of “Watch Your Step.” As the play continues, Daniel interacts with a series of characters with questionable backgrounds, including his translator Peter (Jack Yan), opera-loving Minister Cai (Tony Wang), and the oh-so-seductive Vice Minister Xi (Ann Dang). A string of bad translators brought in for the Minister, each arguably worse than the previous, doesn’t exactly help the situation.
The main idea of the show is Daniel’s discovery of “guan xi,” which means, roughly, that how far you get in life depends on who you know. Sound simple? Wrong. Throw in some corrupt government officials and a series of back-door politicians (which the Chinese call zou hou men) and you’re in for a wild ride. Everyone has their own motives. Although shown in a comedic light, the real-life corruption within Chinese politics is clearly apparent. Much of the dialogue highlights the very obvious nepotism within the political structure, the lack of social stability, and the unreliable judicial system. Oftentimes, business involves familial relationships and secret behind-the-scenes dealings. Other important issues like gender stereotyping and the true meaning of marriage also appear.
The comedic aspect of the show is mainly reflected through rampant miscommunication between Daniel and the Chinese. Some of the more notable interactions include Xi’s declaration to Daniel, “I am sleeping with you.” What she is trying to say is that it’s fatiguing to communicate with him. Another moment: Minister Cai’s first translator informs him that Daniel occasionally sleeps in a steakhouse after Daniel exclaims that he “practically lives there.” It’s okay, translator girl, I feel you, these weird American expressions are hard to process. The numerous Asian stereotypes thrown into the mix are also quite amusing, such as Peter’s insistence on getting Coca Cola without ice, the strange starfish soup that Daniel unknowingly eats, and the giant thermos sitting on Minister Cai’s desk. These moments gave me a throwback to my own time spent in Beijing.
The actors utilize the small black box space very well. The stage never felt cramped and each actor/actress was able to project his or her actions and emotions to the fullest extent. Each set piece was also chosen with consideration for accurately depicting Chinese culture, for example, the tablecloth with traditional patterns, and the silky red bedsheet. The typical Chinese transition music helped set the tone as well.
Overall, the play effectively combines old Chinese culture with a newly changing modern mindset, and gives the audience a firsthand look into the problems facing contemporary China. As for navigating the intricate webs of “guan xi,” that’s for you to figure out.