A new play by the Tony Award winning playwright, David Henry Hwang, has just opened on Broadway. Chinglish is a comedy that explores the barriers of language and culture between the English-speaking world and China. It’s remarkable, not only because it opened without any big-name stars, but because a quarter of the play is written in Mandarin. OK, it does have surtitles (the kind you see in opera houses) and this works supremely well, allowing audience members in on the joke when one or more characters on stage are baffled by the confusions of language. Still, for a mainstream audience, the Chinese language appears to have arrived in a big way.
I did this feature on the play for BBC World News America last week, and interviewed members of the cast as well as the cultural advisers on the show.
But, as I looked into this, I discovered a long and rich history of Chinese theatre in the United States – though not for a mainstream (ie English-speaking) audience. From the middle of the nineteenth century Chinese opera troupes were touring in the United States. According to a study in the Cambridge Opera Journal, in 1852 there was a fully-fledged production staged in San Francsico by the Hong Took Tong, a 130-member trouple from China. In fact, there were many Chinese troupes touring all over the United States, including New York City, providing pleasure for the thriving Chinese-American community, which until the 1960s was predominantly Cantonese.
In the 1930s, the visiting Chinese opera singer, Mei Lan Fang and his troupe came to Broadway to present their lavish Peking opera productions. One of the operas he performed was The Drunken Beauty or The Drunken Concubine (the above is a colour plate depicting choreography from the opera). The music and style is a far cry from Broadway shows of the era – Gershwin’s Of Thee I Sing or Cole Porter’s Anything Goes (which is currently on Broadway again). I read that when Mei Lan Fang performed, he transfixed his American audience as well as the theatre critics with his grace and beauty. Here’s a silent film shot by Eisenstein from 1935 of Mei Lan Fang, a star in his own right who became friends with Hollywood in-crowd of the time, including Charlie Chaplin. More recently the acclaimed Chinese director Chen Kaige made a film about Mei Lan Fang called Forever Enthralled (2008) – which follows in the footsteps of Chen’s best-known film Farewell, My Concubine (1993). You can watch the entire film in HD on YouTube, here.
One thing I’m curious about is whether Peking opera had any influence or impact on American musicals? On the face of it, not much. So David Henry Hwang’s idea to bring a little piece of China to the Broadway stage seems long overdue.