I was surprised when the public service announcement warned: “This play may offend white people.” It was an odd start to a play that aimed at breaking down racial barriers.
“The Dance and the Railroad & Bondage,” a back-to-back showing of two plays by David Henry Hwang, is the first Yale performance to focus on Asian-American identity, explains Assistant Director Elaine Zhang ’17. True to its goals, the plays definitely force audience members to explore how painful and complex race and gender can be.
The production is undoubtedly provocative, and in that way could be offensive to many people, regardless of race. But crossing the line of what is socially acceptable is necessary. The plays lack adventure and plot. The conversation is sometimes dry; the characters basically discover themselves, on stage, through conversation. But the play is redeemed because it is a risqué, straightforward and honest discourse on identity.
The backdrop is a simple white sheet painted with the outline of mountains and sun. In a matter of seconds the serenity is broken by Ma, a young, naïve boy who comes up the mountain during a strike to learn opera from Lone, a recluse. In a subtle twist, Ma is played by a girl, Stefani Kuo ’17. The gender switch is an excellent move; Kuo’s high-pitched voice and youthful enthusiasm captured Ma’s boyish naïveté. Gender becomes neutral, following the production’s aims.
At first, the dynamic between Lone and Ma is a bit awkward; as the tension between the jaded and the ambitious collide, the actors almost do not know how to deal with their historic roles. I did not feel a tangible relationship between the two — it seemed like two individuals in stilted interaction. Perhaps it is the nature of the script, which focuses on individual identity at the expense of realistic dialogue. Either way, with time, they warm up and begin to seem less scripted.
“Eight-hour day good for white man, also good for China man,” Kuo delivers in broken English. The meek delivery of the line poignantly captures the defeat, the exploitation, the cultural barriers and the racism that pervade the play. While the text was a bit dry, the actors brought the characters to life, making the production surprisingly captivating.
As the scene fades out, the painted sheet abruptly drops and club music comes on. All that remains is a glow-in-the-dark sign that reads BITCH. The change of pace is a false promise, because the next hour is another round of conversation between two people. With the new set comes a new play, “Bondage,” and a completely new perspective on the racial tensions in America. The play transitions 100 years from the historical, external obstacles immigrants faced to the internal identity issues of modern-day Asian-Americans.
While in many plays the setting is three-dimensional but the Asian stereotypes lamentably two-dimensional, these plays feature minimalist, two-dimensional sets to call attention to the many dimensions of the characters and their complex dialogue.
“Bondage” is not action-packed. It is not unpredictable. The setting is provocative, but not sensual. The real strength of the one-hour play is the way it explores territory where most people will not go. Its setting is an S&M parlor. Both characters, who are regular sexual partners, hide behind black ski masks and completely black clothes.
Its characters are playing with chains, whips and collars the entire time. It’s quite novel.
The premise of the play is that racial dynamics, like sexual dynamics, can have catastrophic consequences on people’s identities. At times the sexual atmosphere seemed to be unintentionally awkward. For a few moments it was powerful and jarring, but after an hour it had lost the shock factor that brought people in, and the dialogue dragged.
Director Crystal Liu explained that the two plays were meant to blur gender lines. In the gender flip of “The Dance and the Railroad,” the production was successful. I didn’t even realize Ma was supposed to be a certain gender until well into the play. In “Bondage”, however, the playing with sexual dynamics and gender seemed a bit coarser. Both the female and male parts were played by women, but this seemed to ignore the male-female dynamic that was meant as a metaphor for the dynamics between races in America.
While the deeply ingrained prejudices addressed can make the issue seem hopeless, Hwang leaves the audience with this thought: “The rules that govern the behavior of the old era are crumbling but the ones from the new have yet to be written.” The play is raw. It is unfiltered. Which is important, since the play is about digging below pretenses. It exposes “political correctness” as a masquerade of true racial acceptance, which means that nobody is safe from scrutiny, not even the “liberal.” This play is worth seeing not because it is funny or particularly well-written, but simply because it offers a fresh perspective on race and identity.