All Over the Map
Yellow Face in Los Angeles, Things Being What They Are in Long Island, and Boats on a River in Minneapolis.
"The play is a comedy of mistaken racial identity," says Hwang. "It's about how categories that we might think are fairly concrete are actually much more fluid than we imagine. Racial categories are becoming more and more ambiguous, and you can't necessarily tell someone's race just by looking anymore." This philosophy is reflected in the production, which features a cast of seven playing more than 40 different roles. Says Hwang: "We have men playing women, Asians playing non-Asians, white people playing Asians. At least in the ensemble parts, we're able to be completely blind-cast."
The satirical work utilizes various elements drawn from Hwang's own life, including the fact that his father was suspected of laundering money for China (although no charges were ever filed). "My father read an early draft of the play before he passed away," says Hwang. "It says a lot about how gregarious a character he was that he pretty much liked the way he was portrayed."
The play is about much more than theater or Hwang's family; he is particularly interested in exploring the effects of what he calls "the wave of Chinese paranoia in the late '90s," which included the campaign finance scandals and accusations that scientist Wen Ho Lee gave U.S. nuclear secrets to the People's Republic of China. "When we look at the way that journalists fanned the flames in cases like Wen Ho Lee, we have to question the subjectivity of that reporting," says Hwang. "As in the rest of the play, the whole nature of truth versus fiction is called into question."
"Brian d'Arcy James plays this guy who has just moved in and is waiting for his furniture and his wife to arrive," McGowan explains. "I play the guy next door, who bothers him for about two hours. Along the way, there are some buried secrets that come out. The play ends up having a lot of heart, but it's not sentimental. It's about how two men from different walks of life, with different belief systems, are able to bond."
James -- who worked with McGowan only once before, years ago, in a reading of a play called Wunderkind -- is just as delighted to be involved in the show as his co-star. "I've never done a two-hander before," he says. "It's great, very intimate. Really, it's luxurious. In rehearsal, you're spending every minute with just one other actor and the director, so you can concentrate on the minutiae. These guys are in similar circumstances, but they don't really know it until they reveal themselves to each other -- and, in typical male fashion, that takes time. Wendy has written it so wonderfully that they do allow themselves to be vulnerable."
In 2003, the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis received a grant from the Bush Foundation (no relation to our current president) that allowed playwrights to travel overseas. Julie Marie Myatt was one of the writers chosen for the opportunity, and the resulting play, Boats on a River, is now receiving its world premiere at the Guthrie. "The experience changed my writing and research process," says Myatt. "It got me out from behind my desk and into the world. I chose Cambodia as the place I wanted to travel to because I'd seen a news story about the child sex slavery industry in Phnom Penh, and I thought it would be interesting to research."
Boats focuses on the individuals in an aftercare center dedicated to helping young girls who have been rescued from Cambodian brothels. The shelter is run by an American expatriate whose marriage to a Vietnamese woman -- a former sex worker -- is falling apart. He's assisted by a British nun and an idealistic young human rights lawyer. "The play is about the sexual trauma of the girls, who are played by young women, and the ways in which Western and Eastern ideas clash," says Myatt.
Directed by Michael Bigelow Dixon, the Guthrie production incorporates video footage that Myatt shot during one of her visits to Cambodia. But though the play includes stories told to her by some of the aid workers whom she interviewed, it is not meant to be a documentary. "I'm not a journalist," she says. "I had to figure out how to make the story work dramatically. You can't tell every bit of history about a country or every statistic about a problem. While the issue of sex tourism is obviously a part of the play, I've worked hard to make it about the struggles of the individual characters."