Rosanne Ma and Robert Wedig in China Doll
(Photo © Corky Lee)
Rosanne Ma and Robert Wedig in China Doll
(Photo © Corky Lee)
This year marks the 100th birthday of the groundbreaking Asian-American actress Anna May Wong. She began her career in the silent films of the 1920s and later became the embodiment of the sultry dragon lady as well as the shy, demure lotus blossom in numerous films such as Daughter of the Dragon (1931). Though a strong and independent personality, Wong was nevertheless forced by Hollywood to conform to the rules of representation which forbade her to even have an on-screen kiss with a white male lead, as that would bespeak miscegenation. She was passed over for major roles due to her ethnicity, even when those roles were Asian; white actresses in yellowface played the parts instead. Her life story deserves to be told. Unfortunately, the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre's production of Elizabeth Wong's China Doll is a well-intentioned but flawed and inaccurate theatrical biography.

The action unfolds in a kind of dreamscape of Anna May's mind, showing significant moments in the actress's life as well as some of her fantasies. While this gives the playwright some license to to play a bit fast and loose with historical facts, the play often seems badly researched or, at the very least, problematically put together. Certain details are either wholly invented or take extreme liberties with existing knowledge of Anna May Wong.

For example, the playwright unaccountably changes the actress's given name, Wong Liu Tsong, to Wong Jun May. Since a sequence wherein the young Anna May (Rosanne Ma) takes on her new name is enacted, this divergence from the historical record is rather bizarre. Another instance of questionable fact alteration is a scene between a 50-something Anna May and her young boarder Conrad (Robert Wedig), in which Anna May rejoices over getting a one-line bit part in the movie version of Flower Drum Song. In fact, producer Ross Hunter had originally cast her as Madame Liang, but she was too ill to play the part and so it went to Juanita Hall (who had created it on Broadway) instead. If the play's intention is to celebrate the trailblazing work of Anna May Wong, it makes no sense to minimize the role that the legendary actress was offered.

The playwright has built up the heterosexual romantic interests in Anna May Wong's life: film director Nicholai Brandt (Michael Scott) and songwriter Christopher "Fuzzy" Harkins (Jamie Cummings). These roles seem to be either amalgams of several men in Wong's life or are pseudonyms for specific historical individuals. At the same time, author Wong downplays the possibility of her subject's lesbianism. There were many rumors of a sexual affair between Anna May Wong and Marlene Dietrich following their appearance together in the film Shanghai Express (1932). In the play, however, there is just one scene that alludes to a possible lesbian interest in Anna May on the part of Dietrich (Sandy York). It's clear that Anna May is oblivious to this and views Marlene as merely a good friend and role model.

As Anna May Wong, Rosanne Ma has undeniable presence, a striking figure, and gorgeously wide and expressive eyes. She affects a breathy voice with a faint British inflection that doesn't mimic the famous actress's sound but does at least suggest it. There are moments when she effectively conveys the strength and charisma of Anna May Wong but, sadly, she can't sustain the theatrical energy required to carry the play and her performance has a forced quality at times.

Amongst the supporting cast, all of whom play multiple parts, Ruth Zhang shines as Anna May's mother; her animated face and vibrant personality make it easy to see why her daughter loved her so. Jackson Ning, as Anna May's father, has mastered the clipped and withholding manner in which the character deals with his daughter but doesn't bring any further complexity to the role. Cummings makes Christopher an amiable fellow but is not very convincing when he proclaims, "I'm feeling reckless" while doing nothing to suggest that emotion in either voice or body. Scott is rather bland in all of his roles, which include not only Anna May's lover Nicholai but also such recognizable figures as Warner Oland, L.B. Mayer, and Gary Cooper.

York offers a passable Dietrich impression but overdoes the stupidity of a young actress whom she plays in the second act. Likewise, Peter Von Berg tries too hard as the stereotypically flamboyant make-up artist Max and as the condescendingly racist elocution teacher Krasner, who urges his students to intone the mantra "A good Chinese must step aside. A good Chinese must have downcast eyes." Wedig makes a bad first impression from which he never quite recovers: At the top of the show, he portrays an elderly Conrad reminiscing about the time he spent as a boarder in Anna May Wong's home, yet his old age impersonation is patently ridiculous and starts things off on a sour note.

Director Tisa Chang's pacing of the show is often too slow, and the action -- especially the numerous temporal shifts -- is not always as clear as it could be. Ultimately, however, the script itself is the major drawback here. While China Doll may succeed in making contemporary audiences more familiar with a film star of yesteryear, it never captures the brilliance of its subject nor delves deeply into what made Anna May Wong such a fascinating and compelling figure.