Review by: Samuel L. Leiter
In 1963 my wife and I costarred in a university production of a classical Chinese play directed by a Chinese specialist. Such productions of traditional Asian theatre, often done with surprising authenticity, continue at various universities, where—even in communities with large Asian American populations—little fuss is made over the casting of non-Asians. If, though, someone were to cast non-Asians in a professional production—modern or traditional—featuring Asian characters, it would likely incite the kind of anger that informs Han Ong’s Chairs and a Long Table, being given a sharply directed, strongly acted production by the Ma-Yi Theater Company at the Clurman Theatre.
Whites in blackface began disappearing from mainstream American stages in the 1930s, but it took much longer for Asians to replace yellowface performers (think, for example, of Cedric Hardwick playing a Japanese on Broadway in 1959’s A Majority of One). The big blowup came with a rebellion against the casting of Jonathan Pryce as the biracial Engineer in 1991’s Miss Saigon. Since then, race-appropriate casting for Asian actors, at least in the more commercial arenas, has become more pervasive, although—and this is itself sensitive—the meaning of Asian, as in the casting of Ong’s play (which never uses the term Asian American), paints a broad swath across people of widely different ethnicities.
Still, controversial casting continues to light the tinder under Asian American actors, and Ong’s play attacks many of the problems head on. Although his dialogue is crisply, sometimes even profanely, colloquial and the characters distinctly and believably drawn, the impression made by the somewhat didactic Chairs and a Long Table is that of a message in search of a play.
Ong places us in a New York City conference room (realistically designed by Nick Francone) where a white female attorney, Crissie (Julie Fitzpatrick), assisted by an Asian American lawyer-actor, Landon (Ron Domingo), is advising actors Bill (Moses Villarama), Angie (Julienne Hanzelka Kim), and Brin (Jeena Yi). Two actors, representing the Asian American community (no group is specified), will be flying to Los Angeles to participate in a town hall-type meeting with the artistic team at the (fictional) Laguna Repertory Company to express their dissatisfaction with the decision to cast a new play (also fictional) using white actors as the emperor and empress of China.
Watching Chairs and a Long Table feels like being a fly on the wall at a strategy session; who will be good cop, who bad; prepared speeches or extemporaneous ones; anger or quiet diplomacy; responses to the troupe’s alleged multiculturalism, and so on. Small talk about matters like a custody battle and a planned adoption make the characters worth caring about, but they also can be diversions from the issues, many of them contained in formal monologues whose rhetorical eloquence would put Martin Luther King, Jr. to shame.
Since the only counter-arguments are hypothetical, the conflict is not between one policy versus another but among strategic choices whose outcome we never learn. Dramatizing the actual meeting and pitting the two sides against each other might have made for more explosive theatrics.
Linsay Firman’s tight direction and a highly convincing and well-rounded ensemble go a long way toward making ninety minutes go by quickly. But as George S. Kaufman is reputed to have said, “If you want to send a message, try Western Union.”
Chairs and a Long Table
http://ma-yitheatre.org Clurman Theatre 410 W. 42nd Street Through November 22