Cultures clash tragically in Child / by R. Sheth

March 13, 2007
By Mary Houlihan

East meets West in David Henry Hwang's Golden Child, but not in a stereotypical way. Hwang does not rely on the usual scenarios of generations of Asian-Americans battling one another over conflicting ideas. Instead, he refigures the concept, setting the play in 1918 China, where much like today, globalization is changing the way the Chinese think about themselves and the world.

Best known for the Tony Award-winning "M. Butterfly," Hwang was inspired by the stories his grandmother told about his ancestors -- mainly his great-grandfather and his three wives. Golden Child is a compelling, thoughtful drama that honors his ancestors while also presenting Chinese culture in all its complexity.

Silk Road Theatre, a company dedicated to addressing themes relevant to the people of the Silk Road and their diaspora communities, is staging the Midwest premiere of Golden Child. The nicely paced production, under the direction of Stuart Carden, is accented by Carol J. Blanchard's wonderfully authentic costumes and Lee Keenan's graceful, period-perfect set.

Golden Child begins as an affluent landowner Tieng-Bin (Vic Chao) returns to his home after spending several years in the Philippines, where he has worked alongside white businessmen. Preceding him are troubling rumors that he has developed an interest in Christianity. On the home front, his three wives worry about the effect this newfound interest will have on a household where ancestor worship is a time-honored tradition.

While handing out puzzling gifts (a cuckoo clock, a waffle iron, a gramophone), Tieng-Bin informs his opium-addicted first wife, Siu-Yong (Cheryl Hamada); his strategizing second wife, Luan (Kimberlee Soo) and third wife, young and pretty Eling (Tiffany Villarin), that a visitor is expected. The visitor is the Rev. Anthony Baines (Kevin Kenneally), a missionary who sees Tieng-Bin as a prospective convert.

When Tieng-Bin announces he will convert, the family routine becomes riddled with jealousy and suspicion as age-old customs come under attack. Above all, what will Tieng-Bin's religious conversion mean to his three wives? They are not content to wait and see. Jockeying for position, they use their wiles to secure a spot as the chosen wife.

"We look to you to bring home thoughts from the darkest corners of the world," coos Siu-Yong, as Luan plots to convert to "modern ways" and Eling uses simple charm to secure her spot as the favorite wife.

Observing all this is Ahn (Melissa Kong), Tieng-Bin's teenage daughter, a "daddy's girl" who escapes the torture of traditional foot binding, thanks to her father's progressive thinking. Her unabashed enthusiasm bring elements of humanity and hope to what is ultimately a tragic melding of cultures.

Hwang laces the drama with a sardonic humor (first wife Siu-Yong is particularly snarky) that sits uncomfortably alongside the serious debate about the women's future. At times, you feel as if you're watching two separate plays. Despite this concern, Hwang's important questions about family and tradition are worth asking.

Note: Make sure to take a few minutes to contemplate the Zhou Brothers' massive mural that graces the Silk Road Theatre lobby. A gift to the theater, it's an epic abstract journey, the artists' interpretation of a trek along the legendary Silk Road, painted in brushstrokes of black, red and white.

mhoulihan@suntimes.com