If it were not for Lauren Yee’s insight, Ching Chong Chinaman would just be another play about Asian Americans. But Lee punctures the old stereotypes in her new work, staged by the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre at the West End Theatre, and gives us a portrait of super-assimilated Asians in search of a fresh corner of the American dream.
When the lights go up, we see the Wong family sitting for their annual family portrait: Ed is a businessman in his 40s, residing in Palo Alto, Calif.; his wife Grace, also in her 40s, is a homemaker; Desdemona, their intellectual teenage daughter, has aspirations for attending Princeton; Upton, their teenage son, is totally obsessed with computer games; and Ching Chong (alias Jinqiang), their indentured servant from China, in his 20s, is simply inscrutable.
The title of Yee’s play comes from a folkloric source, and refers to a traditional Chinese verse often chanted by children in schoolyard games. But the phrase is also used by Americans as an ethnic slur, and it carries the same sting as the n-word in African American culture. Early in the play, Grace unwittingly pronounces Jinqiang’s name as “Ching Chong,” and her daughter Desdemona vehemently objects: “Mom! You can’t say ‘Ching Chong.’ That’s like the most offensive thing in the world.”
Ching Chong becomes the catalyst of the plot. No slouch, he does everything from mowing the lawn, figuring out calculus problems for Desdemona, doing homework and chores for Upton and playing golf with Ed. But when he pulls on a pair of tap shoes and rat-a-tat-tats himself across the kitchen floor, he reveals his real talent. He’s a dancer, one who dreams of being the next Savion Glover.
The play includes the standard romantic dilemmas that keep comedies in motion. There is one steamy love affair and a teenage amour to keep things spicy. The real zinger in the plot, however, is when Desdemona discovers through InstantHeritage.com that she is a fourth-generation Asian American and that her ancestors briefly lived in Mexico. Intrigued by this, Desdemona and her dad travel to Mexico to retrace their ancestors’ journey.
The show is well cast, but the standout is the agile James Chen, playing Ching Chong. His acting is excellent, and his tap dancing is better. To be sure, the other five actors manage to hold their own in this fast-paced, two-hour play. Since there is a bit of caricature in each characterization, the actors get hammy at times. But they can tighten up a scene in a wink to deliver a social point.
True, some of the jokes fall flat, and a few references to Tiger Woods and his golfing career made the audience conspicuously silent. But this is really nitpicking over a well-constructed work. As directed by May Adrales, everything in this satiric comedy keeps moving forward.
Anybody who has ever wanted to learn more about Asian American culture should see this play. Ching Chong Chinaman has won several playwrighting awards, including the 2007 Yale Playwrights Festival. No doubt we will be hearing more from this young author.
Through April 11, West End Theatre, 263 W. 86th St. (betw. Broadway and West End Ave. in the Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew, 2nd floor), 212-352-3101; $45.
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