Playwright discusses influence of ‘Our Town,’ China

Chinese-American playwright Alvin Eng believes the effects of theater transcend scripts and actors. In a Tuesday evening talk, he said the greatest legacy of performance lies in its effect on the human soul.

Eng, a creative writing professor at Fordham University, spoke to a group of about 30 students and community members in the Office of International Students and Scholars. In his presentation, Eng focused on the play “Our Town,” written by Thornton Wilder ’20, and the influences it has had upon Eng’s life and work. Theater often symbolizes broader cultural concepts, he said, and “Our Town” does so particularly effectively.

“Theater is the most ephemeral of art forms,” Eng said. “After the light comes up … the experience lives on in the memories of those who saw it.”

Much of Eng’s address dealt with the influence his mother had on his life. Growing up in a tight-knit family from Flushing, N.Y., during the 1960s, Eng said Chinese-Americans lived in the shadow of the ongoing Cold War conflict, and immigrants like his parents were expected to abandon many aspects of their cultural heritage when they arrived in the United States. His mother was particularly affected by this, he said, since she spoke no English and was often treated as “a Martian” in their predominantly white neighborhood.

Nevertheless, Eng said his mother maintained a deep connection to her home in China. When she died in 2002, Eng dealt with the loss by delving deeply into playwriting and music. Eng said “Our Town” was particularly helpful to him during this period, since he was able to sympathize with several of the work’s principal characters. His connection to Wilder’s work was strengthened by its Chinese influences, which Eng said resulted from Wilder’s time living in China during his father’s time as a U.S. ambassador in the 1930s.

Eng’s tie to “Our Town,” which takes small-town New Hampshire as its setting, led him to base several projects on the script, including a student group production he helped coordinate as a visiting professor at the City University of Hong Kong in 2011. Eng asked students to compose original scripts in English in response to Wilder’s work. The production was called “Hong Kong Time Capsule 2011,” a title drawn from a scene in “Our Town” in which characters create a time capsule in hopes of preserving their lives for future generations.

When he asked students what they would put in their own time capsules, Eng said the students said they would most like to preserve parts of Hong Kong that might disappear due to cultural and environmental changes, such as its Victoria Harbor. Eng’s students translated these ideas into the shows they wrote, capturing characters from headlines in Chinese newspapers and encounters in their daily lives, since these are people and events that might fade as society progresses over decades and centuries to come, he said.

Eng added that seeing his own play “Last Emperor of Flushing” performed in China had a deep cultural significance for him.

“It was everything I could hope for,” Eng said. “Every movement, every line had a deeper meaning, because there we were performing in a city where my ancestors once walked the earth.”

Aaron Jaffris, a New Haven-based writer in attendance at the talk whose past work has dealt with Chinese-American theater, said Eng’s words helped him gauge how his own work and the work of his collegues might be received if they were to be staged in China.

Yale-China Association Executive Director Nancy Maasbach, who led a question-and-answer session after Eng’s presentation, said Chinese arts don’t draw as much interest in the country as other areas, such as economics. She said Eng’s talk attempted to combat this underappreciation by bringing Chinese arts to light.

Eng’s most recent play, titled “Three Trees,” will debut in Paris this May.

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