Tuesday, June 7, 2011

A Rediscovery Through Language

By Johnny Wu, Bing and Judge Xu Geming in Chinglish.

During a viewing of an Olympics in my youth, my mother offered up to her guests a thought that lived somewhere between levity and heartbreak. "This little one will only root for America," she said in Mandarin. The guests shared a knowing laugh.

Now that I’m fully immersed in Tony Award-winning David Henry Hwang's latest play, Chinglish, here at the Goodman, I'm enjoying the feeling that I might finally be pleasing my mother. Outside of our lead and anchor, James Waterston, everyone else in the cast speaks Mandarin including UK native Stephen Pucci, whose command over the world's toughest language remains charmingly impressive in the rehearsal room. The cast spends ample time together; saying that we all get along would be an understatement. We frequent Chicago's Chinatown, lug home tons of groceries, gather in an apartment and cook up feasts to satiate emperors. I employ cooking skills that were (at the time) unwillingly learned from my mother. We laugh, we joke, we drink, we eat, we get lost in impassioned discourse, we watch ball games, we go out, we stay in—and through it all, we speak Mandarin.

Sure, I spent my first eight years in Shanghai, but I grew up in the urban paradise of Queens, NYC. My mom grew up in the rural oppression of Cultural Revolution China. When I arrived in this country, I immediately discarded my Chinese identity—I mean, who doesn't enjoy hot showers, and freedom of speech? And over the years, I've been thoroughly convinced that the American way of life is indeed my way, but I've always struggled to connect with my mother.

Well, a few days ago, I called my mom to tell her the French Open women's championship match was on NBC. She's not a tennis fan. But she is a China fan. And when Li Na became the sport's first-ever Chinese winner of a Grand Slam title, I knew that my mom was enjoying her nation's triumph. And I, too, felt a sense of overwhelming pride. As China continues to fortify its identity as a global leader, joining the ranks of countries like the US, I'm finding more comfort and more urgency alike in representing, as fully as I can, all that it is to be Chinese American.

For me, Chinglish has been a portal through which I'm afforded a better knowledge of myself. But beyond that, it has offered me a group of people that I can easily love. And it is with this love that this exquisite story is told. David's writing is poignant, hilarious, and stunningly truthful. The cast performs with veracity, with mastery and with regards to Leigh Silverman, our director, my only fear in using the word “virtuosic” to describe her abilities would be that the English language might run out of better adjectives to suit her future endeavors.

Chinglish begins performances at the Goodman on June 18th, closing on July 24th. Join us for a story that's set halfway around the world and yet lives so close to us—a story about our endless need to communicate beyond all else.

Top (left to right):
Chinglish cast members Brian Nishii, James Waterston, Johnny Wu, Angela Lin, Stephen Pucci, and Jennifer Lim. Middle: Johnny Wu, Jennifer Lim, Chinglish translator Candace Chong, and Stephen Pucci. Bottom: Chinglish translator Candace Chong and cast member Larry Zhang.

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