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(l-r) Peter Von Berg, Richard Ebihara, Julia McLaughlin,
Jose Rosario, Perry Yung, and Fay Ann Lee
in Forbidden City Blues
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Crafting a farce about racial identity is no easy task. There is a danger that it will come across as racially insensitive, overly simplistic, or not all that funny. Alexander Woo's Forbidden City Blues does not quite escape these dangers, but it is still an amusing, if uneven, attempt at skewering popularly held perceptions.

Raymond Chang (Rick Ebihara) is a Chinese-American man making his first trip to China. He doesn't speak the language and is woefully out of touch with his cultural roots. But he views the vacation as a pilgrimage of sorts, and is eager to immerse himself in all things Chinese. He's accompanied by his Caucasian girlfriend, Alice (Kate Chaston), who is a bit better equipped for the trip (she speaks Mandarin). Soon after the couple arrives, Raymond is kidnapped by the Chinese government and undergoes a top-secret medical procedure that transforms him into a Caucasian male (played by Scott C. Reeves). Raymond is re-dubbed "Mr. Whitman" (pronounced "white-man" - get it?), and proceeds to undergo a major identity crisis.

There are several more twists and turns in the plot involving a deputy U.S. ambassador with a penchant for dressing like a clown (Julia McLaughlin), a Russian officer named Pavlov who salivates at the sound of a bell (Peter Von Berg), and a Chinese assistant premier (Les J.N. Mau) who spends most of his time combing his pet beaver. Unfortunately, most of these characters are no more than a one-note joke--funny the first time, but much less so by the umpteenth repetition.

The political context of Forbidden City Blues is unclear. The inclusion of the Russian officer lends a vague Cold War feel to the piece, but the program lists the setting as present-day Beijing. The transformation of Chinese-American Raymond into a spy for the Chinese government brings to mind the anxiety and paranoia of the recent Wen Ho Lee case, in which the Los Alamos scientist was accused of passing on sensitive government data to the Chinese. And yet, the show avoids making any serious political statement.

Director Ron Nakahara hasn't quite found the balance between the play's kooky hijinks and dramatic possibility. The pacing is sluggish, the comic timing a bit off, and the staging overly presentational. Dialogue scenes are played only for laughs, and they fail to build relationships between the characters. Ebihara and Chaston, for instance, lack any real romantic chemistry; thus, when their relationship is tested, following Raymond's racial transformation, something seems off. The actors also often appear too calm, considering the extraordinary circumstances in which they are involved.

The most successful aspect of the production is the narration by Blind Amos Cunningham (Jose Ramon Rosario), an African-American blues singer. Rosario is backed by Ebihara and Perry Yung on guitar, and this blues trio sets the mood and comments upon the action. The music also helps ease the numerous scene transitions. The use of this narrative device is explained by the end of the play, and provides one of the better moments in this occasionally amusing but ultimately flawed comedy.

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