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Lloyd Suh’s Plays About the Past Speak Directly to Our Present

The 47-year-old playwright Lloyd Suh is having a moment, with a handful of plays that reveal how history can exact an emotional toll across culture and time.

His latest, “The Far Country,” opens at Angel Island, the notorious checkpoint off the coast of San Francisco, and explores lives fractured by the Chinese Exclusion Act, a racist policy that severely restricted immigration of Chinese people and limited those in the United States from gaining citizenship.

The play, running at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater through Jan. 1, has been well received by critics. In her review for The New York Times, Alexis Soloski called it “an act, loving and sorrowful, of reclamation, salvaging the history of early generations of Chinese Americans.”

His aim, Suh said during a recent phone call, is to prove “the way in which memory becomes hereditary because of the way it lives in the body, the way it lives in the family. There’s poignancy there, but power too.”

This mission also plays out in his acclaimed “The Chinese Lady,” in which audiences learn of Afong Moy, who, as possibly the first Chinese woman in the United States, was exhibited across 1830s America. The story, Laura Collins-Hughes wrote in her review for The Times earlier this year when it played at the Public Theater, traverses “188 years of American ugliness and exoticization.”

Then there’s his fanciful “Charles Francis Chan Jr.’s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery” — a metanarrative of Asian American history, set in Berkeley in 1967, a year before students there coined the term “Asian American” — which finds charm even in grotesque rebuttals of racist caricature. And an early one-act, “Disney & Fujikawa,” that dramatizes a 1942 meeting between Walt Disney and the Japanese American illustrator Gyo Fujikawa, whose family was held at the Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas.

Next up is “The Heart Sellers,” which debuts in February in Milwaukee and involves two housewives navigating feelings of isolation in a new country in 1973. The play’s title is a pun on the Hart-Celler Act of 1965, which, by ending U.S. quotas on the number of immigrants from outside Western Europe, saw a dramatic rise in global newcomers — especially Asians.

Shannon Tyo and Jinn S. Kim in “The Far Country,” at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater through Jan. 1.Credit…Richard Termine for The New York Times

Daniel K. Isaac and Shannon Tyo in “The Chinese Lady” at the Public Theater earlier this year.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Beyond its storytelling, “The Far Country” has reunited Suh with the actor Shannon Tyo, who originated the role of Moy in 2018 in a Ma-Yi Theater Company production of “The Chinese Lady.” She returned to the part for the show’s run at the Public.

Suh and Tyo both said their continued collaboration is a testament to new creative and professional growth for Asian American theater workers made possible by diversity, inclusion and equity strategies as well as the broader racial reckoning in America that dovetailed with the pandemic.

Having performed in “The Chinese Lady” both before and during the pandemic, Tyo explained the shift. “Prior to the pandemic, it’s almost like audiences didn’t believe us about our history of violence against our community,” she said. “The violence we’ve seen in our present is unfortunately what it takes to make our violent history come alive. People are more ready to believe us, ready to empathize.”

In “The Far Country,” that sense of personal resonance and theater’s ability to refract a scene for different audiences — as was the case with Suh’s children’s play “The Wong Kids in the Secret of the Space Chupacabra Go!” — was amplified by the show’s director, Eric Ting.

The script subverts immigration, he said, by focusing on how “the only way the characters can achieve a place in the American project is by severing ties with their ancestors.” He added that Suh “is really focusing on the destructive force of capitalism, how it disrupts and destroys families.”

Separate from bureaucracy and labor, one character notes, “there is more strenuous work: the work of being Chinese in America.”

For the cast and crew, takeaways varied. Whit K. Lee, who plays both a translator and a detainee, said he wept when he first read the script. His maternal great-grandfather had been a translator for 19th-century Chinese railroad workers in Montana and his paternal grandfather was held at Angel Island when he was just 9 years old (separated from his mother, Lee said, the malnourished child used rice rations to lure, kill and eat a pigeon).

“So much is lost because our ancestors didn’t want to pass down these stories,” Lee said. “‘The Far Country’ allows me to help tell the story that I was never taught in school. I’m very proud to be Chinese, Chinese American, American Chinese and American.”

But Suh, who last week won a $100,000 prize as a recipient of this year’s Steinberg Playwright Awards, is not alone in his success.

With his work, Suh says his aim is to prove “the way in which memory becomes hereditary because of the way it lives in the body, the way it lives in the family.” Credit…Nathan Bajar for The New York Times

In spring 2020, Asian American theater professionals mourned nine plays that were scrapped or curtailed when live performance spaces closed amid the unfolding pandemic chaos. In the last six months, a number of works by Asian American playwrights have been produced Off Broadway, including Jiehae Park’s “Peerless,” presented by Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters, and Daniel K. Isaac’s “Once Upon a (korean) Time,” a Ma-Yi Theater Company production at La MaMa. Several more are planned for the spring, including “Elyria,” the playwright Deepa Purohit’s Off Broadway debut at Atlantic Theater Company, and Hansol Jung’s “Wolf Play,” which, after an engagement last winter presented by Soho Rep and Ma-Yi Theater Company, will return to the stage in January at MCC Theater.

The works are not only the fruit of prepandemic efforts to include more Asian American storytelling in theater, but also a reclamation of agency and identity following anti-Asian bigotry and violence during the pandemic itself.

“There’s certainly a range of activity now and a quantity of work and a variety of work that feels pretty fresh,” said David Henry Hwang, who became the first (and remains the only) Asian American playwright to win a Tony Award for best play, for “M. Butterfly” in 1988.

“There has been an increasing number of AAPI playwrights challenging what has come before,” Hwang added, referring to Asian American Pacific Islanders. “Asian actors have been largely employed by ‘The King and I’ and ‘Miss Saigon,’ which have Orientalist aspects, white supremacist aspects, and with ‘Miss Saigon’ is actually pretty racist.”

By contrast, said Suh, “I want Asian American actors to feel like it’s for them, their ownership. Not just roles in plays.” Asked if he has any interest in revivals of “The King and I,” “Miss Saigon” or “South Pacific,” he offered a deadpan “no” before laughing. “I don’t think those are pieces where it’s possible to have any kind of take that is meaningfully transformative.”

More recently, breakthroughs and opportunities have manifested in the revisiting of classic works: An Off Broadway production of Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance” this fall had an all-Asian-American cast and a “Little Shop of Horrors” revival in California was set in Chinatown. And newer works have found audiences nationally: Lauren Yee’s “Cambodian Rock Band” and Kristina Wong’s “Sweatshop Overlord,” which had Off Broadway runs in New York.

“It’s exciting to me,” Tyo said, “that we could build our canon ourselves.”

Suh added: “This industry can be a marketplace where plays have value as commodities, but with all these shows it’s a reminder that the power of theater is in the conversations it creates, how one play leads to the next. That’s how the conversation sustains.”

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