Play inspired by UI grad's book to be presented in Chicago / by R. Sheth

Play inspired by UI grad's book to be presented in Chicago

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Best-selling author Iris Chang continues to inspire other writers even after, or maybe because of, her suicide four years ago. Last year saw the release of a book on Chang, written by a friend who had been a classmate of hers at the University of Illinois, and a feature-length documentary by a pair of Toronto-based filmmakers.

Now comes playwright Christopher Chen's "Into the Numbers," a play based on Chang and her work on her 1997 international best-seller "The Rape of Nanking," the first English-language account of the horrific Nanking Massacre committed by the Imperial Japanese Army after it captured Nanking, then capital of China, during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

Chen's "Into the Numbers" will have staged readings in Chicago next Saturday and Sunday as part of the Silk Road Theatre Project's Al Kasida Staged Reading Series. Chen will answer questions after both readings.

"Structured as an interview gone awry, 'Into the Numbers' explores the philosophical and psychological implications of researching genocide, as well as the toll media saturation plays in the process," according to a news release from the Chicago theater.

"What begins as a standard lecture and interview soon descends into a surreal nightmare. Ghosts from Chang's research appear, and characters shift personas, as the celebrated author tries desperately to find order in the midst of mental chaos."

In a telephone interview, the San Francisco-based Chen said the play opens with Chang in a lecture hall being interviewed. Eventually the audience discovers that the play is a dream that Chang had the night before she committed suicide.

Chen said he wrote "Into the Numbers" because Chang's book on Nanking had stuck in his mind. He also had a more personal reason.

"My father was 5 at the time the Japanese invaded China," he said. "He witnessed the Japanese coming into Hong Kong; his family had to flee. I always wanted to address the subject of the Japanese invasion of China, but it's such a huge, multifaceted subject that I needed a lens to look through."

After recovering from the shock of Chang's death (he had never met her), Chen decided she would be the lens. After considering several approaches, Chen decided not to do extensive biographical research on Chang.

"I made it more of a fantasy than real biography. I kind of go along with the idea that she was trying to wrestle with the unknown, the unthinkable, and that's a horrific genocidal experience. Coming from an official biographical standpoint would not have captured the true essence of the person."

Chen notified Chang's mother by e-mail of the play and invited her and her husband to the first staged reading in San Francisco. They were unable to attend but were supportive; they did not ask to read or approve the script, much to Chen's surprise.

"They seemed happy that she's still in people's minds," he said.

Already, "Into the Numbers" has been presented as staged readings at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival in San Francisco, The Lark Play Development Center, the hotINK Festival in New York and Theatre Mu's New Eyes Festival in Minneapolis. The play won Chen a Ford Foundation Emerging Writers of Color Grant from Theatre Mu, and "Into the Numbers" was a semifinalist for the 2008 Princess Grace Award as well.

Chen, who is 26, is a resident playwright at the Asian American Theater Company in San Francisco. His current project is the commissioned work "The Window Age," loosely based on Virginia Woolf; it will receive a full production at Central Works in Berkeley in February 2009. His other plays include "Anomienaulis," "Maya and "Mishima Speaks to Beauty."

The Silk Road Theatre Project's Al Kasida Staged Reading Series is billed as Chicagoland's first and only staged reading series dedicated to developing playwrights of Asian, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean backgrounds.

If you go

What: The Silk Road Theatre Project's Al Kasida Staged Reading Series presents San Francisco playwright Christopher Chen's "Into the Numbers," based on Urbana native Iris Chang and her work on her best-selling nonfiction book, "The Rape of Nanking."

When: 8 p.m. Dec. 6 and 1 p.m. Dec. 7.

Where: Historic Chicago Temple Building, 77 West Washington St., Pierce Hall, Chicago.

Admission: Free.

For information: Call 312-857-1234 . ext. 201, e-mail or visit online Reservations are strongly recommended. Be sure to mention the date you wish to attend and the number of seats you'd like to reserve.