Courtesy of Yale Repertory Theatre

As flames hungrily swallow up San Francisco’s Chinatown and destroy municipal records during the 1906 earthquake, a paper family of Chinese immigrants emerges from the rubble. 

“The Far Country,” the Yale Rep’s concluding play of its 2023-24 season, follows the journey of an unlikely family, from China’s Guangdong Province to Angel Island Detention Center, as they confront the price of immigration. 

Written by Lloyd Suh and directed by Ralph B. Peña, the play begins in 1909, two decades after the U.S. enforced the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. With the destruction of documentation and the creation of “paper families” from feigned and stolen identities, “The Far Country” explores how Chinese immigrants found ways around their legalized exclusion — a plight that isn’t unfamiliar to immigrants of today, according to Peña. 

“The United States has always had a very thorny relationship with immigrants,” said Peña. “They’ve enacted laws to keep us out, to keep many immigrants out. Without necessarily making direct parallels, I think audiences today will see how this hasn’t changed much… It’s still happening.”

While there are degrees of universality to the play, the experience of Chinese immigrants in the early 1900s is “unique” given the distinctly anti-Chinese sentiment of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Peña said. The exclusion act was the first piece of major legislation to explicitly restrict and suspend immigration for a specific nationality. 

This extraordinary history of Chinese immigration, however, is rarely taught in classrooms, said Peña and David Shih, who plays the role of Gee. The history of the Chinese Exclusion Act is “not included” in most U.S. social studies and history curriculum, according to Judy Yu, an assistant professor at Queens College and educational activist. 

As a part of the Yale Rep’s “WILL POWER!” program, an annual educational initiative, the theater will offer programming centered around “The Far Country” to New Haven Public School students and educators. Along with past seasons of the program, high school students will be able to view the show for free, said Peña.

Shih said that historical stories such as “The Far Country” and attempts to bring awareness to “uncomfortable” parts of U.S. history are especially important given the country’s various attempts to restrict classroom conversations about race. 

“I think there are a lot of things about American history that should be taught that aren’t,” said Shih. “In a time, especially where in certain parts of the country, there are laws that are being enacted to prevent schools from teaching certain histories, I think that it’s important that we know our history … and hopefully, don’t repeat it, because in some ways, I feel like we are repeating it.” 

In addition to the unique nature behind the exclusion of Chinese immigrants, “The Far Country” is different from other tales of immigration, as it focuses on a family “created out of almost a business transaction,” rather than blood-related relatives, Shih said. Through the process of immigration, these strangers ultimately form a “chosen family” of sorts, according to Joyce Meimei Zheng, who plays the character of Yuen.

Unlike their characters, the actors and the production crew were hardly strangers to one another, as some of them had worked with each other on different projects. For Shih, he had previously worked with Đavid Lee Huỳnh, who plays Two in the play, and Peña on Daniel K. Isaac’s “Once Upon a (Korean) Time.” Shik spoke to the closeness of the cast, who frequently hung out around the “famous snack table” in the rehearsal room and enjoyed group karaoke nights on Saturdays. 

The majority of the cast are Asian American actors, some of whom have said that the stakes were much higher given the historical and cultural significance of the story. In particular, Zheng spoke about the pressures she confronted given the somewhat sparse representation of Asian American experiences on the stage: “this is not a story that we get to hear often,” she said. 

Zheng also described this experience as a reckoning with her place and power on the stage as an Asian woman in theater. 

“The challenge that I’ve been facing in my process as an actor is definitely learning, like what works for me… How do I not be self conscious? How do I be brave and take up space?” said Zheng. “Especially as a young, small Asian woman, how do I claim my power and take up space on a stage, in a room, amongst people that I’ve never talked to that I’ve never met before.”

While “The Far Country” is a weighty story that speaks of the sacrifices and things left behind in the passage to America, which are prominent themes in immigration stories, the play aims to deliver a tale of both grieving and celebration, said Zheng. 

Designed by Kim Zhou, the set design displays this message of resilience amidst suffering, quite literally. The set carries the inscriptions that Chinese immigrants carved on the walls of Angel Island in real life. According to Peña, this design element is crucial to not only the telling of the story but in evoking the idea of Angel Island as “both a detention center and a palace for art and poetry.” 

Peña continued and said that the crew of “The Far Country” was “conscious about being authentic to the story,” which is seen in production elements, such as costume design and the use of photographs from the period, and dramaturgy. 

“It’s very easy to self-ghettoize this story, even Asians can can do it,” said Peña. “When we look at photographs from the period, for example, or even stories, the write-ups during this period, those were all written from the white point of view, including the photographs. Who is taking the photograph, and why? Or who’s writing the stories and why? The stories are always written by the victors, right, so we’re rarely given the opportunity to contextualize our own stories.” 

“The Far Country” ran from April 26 to May 18, 2024.