Fifteen-year-old Alex Chan has a 4.5 GPA, even though she skipped two grades ahead. She speaks four languages and plays five instruments. To most parents, she would be considered a golden child, but not to Mr. and Mrs. Chan. For them, Alex lacks one essential trait: She is not a boy. This is the premise behind Chisa Hutchinson's edge-of-your-seat drama Somebody's Daughter, which is now inducing collective gasps and heart palpitations at Second Stage Uptown.
The play begins with Alex (Michelle Heera Kim) anxiously seated in a meeting with her guidance counselor, Kate Wu (Jeena Yi). Kate is naturally impressed by Alex's transcript, but having sat on a college admissions board (and as a fellow Asian-American), she knows that it will take more than a flawless academic record to get Alex into her all-Ivy college wish list (Columbia is her safety school). Alex needs to show she has a personality.
When Kate asks Alex if she has a secret wish, Alex shares that she often thinks about suicide. This is because her dad, Richard (David Shih), and especially her mom, Millie (Vanessa Kai) have made it clear that they would rather have a son. Millie is finally pregnant with a boy (following the abortion of several girls), and Alex feels like nothing she achieves can ever compensate for her sex. When Alex shows her mom that she has been chosen as a national merit finalist, Millie dismisses her: "Think about who the competition is: a bunch of lazy, complacent white kids," she says in a flourish of Chinese chauvinism. "If we were still in China, a national award would be a real honor."
As Millie, Kai embodies the tiger mother from hell. Her glances are so withering, her words so cutting, that we pray the house lights stay dim, lest she turn her claws on us inferiors seated in the audience. Still, we come to understand her bullying is all the natural result of the rotten deal she has been handed: She credits herself with creating this new American family — Richard would have been content to stay in China as a Communist bureaucrat without her intervention — but her role has been relegated to enforcer for an unaccountable patriarchy with unquestioned values. Dad gets to stay jovial and aloof while mom transforms into a monster. The fact that we can feel some shred of empathy for Millie by the end of the play is not just a testament to Kai's performance, but Hutchinson's incisive writing.
As if her central story weren't compelling enough, Hutchinson expands her scope to include the domestic life of Kate and her longtime boyfriend, Reggie (Rodney Richardson), a handsome black man she first started dating just to scandalize her own overbearing Chinese parents. "I think that it's always easier finding yourself against a contrasting background," Kate advises Alex when she expresses romantic interest in Russ (Collin Kelly-Sordelelet), an academically average white boy. We wonder if that is not what Kate is still doing with Reggie, a man who seems to be more interested in settling down.
Director May Adrales weaves all of these threads into a complex tapestry with her efficient yet detailed production. Lee Savage's useful set features five rooms made distinct by varying floor patterns on slightly different levels. The lack of walls keeps the playing space open and allows for easy transitions (a necessary trait for all of the location changes). Adrales silently stages scenes in the other rooms as the main scene is happening elsewhere, adding layers of meaning to the text. It's like watching theater in multiple windows.
Seth Reiser keeps this process focused with his subtly suggestive lighting. Sara Ryung Clement's costumes shrewdly account for the way we express our values through clothing: Kate's form-fitting office casual ensemble contrasts highly with Millie's more shapeless dress, which is meant to hide her feminine features. Lisa Kopitsky's brutal fight direction is so realistic you may find yourself involuntarily shutting your eyes.
The performances are also quite real: Silent for almost the entire first scene, Kim goes on a startling journey as Alex, a young woman trapped in an impossible position who is determined to make up for lost years of rebellion. Since Kate is the kind of person who uses humor as a defense mechanism, Yi has timed all of her comic beats to perfection. She is the rare performer who can be serious and funny at the same time. Richardson keeps us in suspense about his character's thoughts until the very end. It's the ideal posture for this play that is in no way predictable.
Somebody's Daughter is a gripping work that touches on female infanticide, interracial relationships, domestic abuse, and that unsettling moment in adolescence when you realize that the adults around you don't really have life that much more figured out than you do. Ordinarily, any one of those topics would be enough to sustain a play, but Hutchinson cleverly ties them all together in one deeply satisfying drama. She is undeniably a playwright to watch going forward.