KITCHEN DIPLOMACY: Jinqiang (Nick Louie, left) tries to understand the needs of Desdemona (Monica Ho) and her father (Lawrence-Michael C. Arias) in 'Ching Chong Chinaman.' Photograph by Robyn Winslow
Lauren Yee’s provocatively titled Ching Chong Chinaman is making its San Jose debut at City Lights Theater with a production directed by Jeffrey Bracco. This is a play about Chinese-American identity and identity in general—“Who am I and who do I want to be?“—as well as an exuberant skewering of that great American cliche, the “melting pot.”
Upton Wong (Anthony Chan) knows exactly who he wants to be: World of Warcraft champion, with all the attendant fame, glory and women. His sister, Desdemona (Monica Ho), wants to go to Princeton. Their mother, Grace (Chiho Saito), dreams of something beyond her dull existence as a homemaker, while their father (Lawrence-Michael C. Arias) just wants to win the family golf tournament.
Though Desdemona longs for a colorful family heritage that will ease her entry into an Ivy League college, the Wongs are thoroughly “melted” into the American cauldron. They cannot speak Chinese or use chopsticks, and they don’t dwell on their cultural background. However, this assimilated “normalcy” is thrown off-kilter from the outset by the presence of Jinqiang (Nick Louie), an indentured servant brought from China to do Upton’s homework for him. In a somewhat madcap series of events, including a Mexican quincea–era, “Gangnam Style” and tap dancing, the Wongs find their identities turned upside down.
As you might gather from its title, Ching Chong Chinaman takes sensitive issues, draws blunt, albeit good-natured, humor from them and has you laughing at jokes you probably shouldn’t be laughing at. For example, the Wongs cannot pronounce Jinqiang’s name correctly, instead calling him “Ching Chong,” or alternately, “Ching Ching” and “Ping Pong,” ironically using the same racial epithets that white Americans have historically directed at Asians.
This sort of cultural confusion is amusing and, more often than not, hilarious, but it also raises serious issues that aren’t developed as fully as one might hope. The play is aiming mainly for laughs, so this isn’t too much of a loss, and the cast handles both the comedic and dramatic scenes with equal aplomb—witness Monica Ho’s reactions as Desdemona discovers hidden family secrets, Anna Lee’s variously dignified and silly supporting roles, and Saito and Louie’s surprisingly bittersweet dance numbers—making the Wongs a family that you can’t help wanting to visit.
Ching Chong Chinaman
Thursday—Saturday, 8pm, Sunday, 2pm, runs through Feb. 24; $24.95-$39.95
City Lights Theater Company, San Jose