“This is your curse, to make your roots in sand, to bend at the first sign of movement, the ground always shifting beneath you.
Your curse, yeah, but also your strength.
So ‘okay’ you think.
Why not make your home somewhere else?
Why not see who you have always been meant to be?”
– from Young Americans by Lauren Yee
American identity – however much the many decades of cultural, commercial and political orthodoxy have tried to fix it in baseball/hotdogs/apple pie imagery – always has been fluid in nature. Our brittle, perhaps fractured times make it an especially ripe subject for reflection.
One such recent look from a theatrical perspective came from the often-remarkable Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble in a show titled The Americans, which used the 1950s photography of Robert Frank as launching point for an abstract, dance-centered show that, inevitably, offered no answers about what it means to be American, but also, disappointingly, framed no clear questions about it, either.
Paradoxically, if perhaps not surprisingly, the narrower lens of fiction offers a clearer picture, at least in the case of Young Americans, a new play by the in-demand young playwright Lauren Yee, opening this weekend at Portland Center Stage.
PCS commissioned the work from Yee, whose surprising and potent Cambodian Rock Band was a hit at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2019 and a 2020 pandemic scratch from the PCS schedule. Young Americans initially was to be part of the 2020-’21 season, but amid its delays PCS and Artists Rep co-produced Yee’s The Great Leap, which dealt with family, Chinese/American relations and basketball.
The Asian focus of those plays is left aside for Young Americans, or at least it can be; Yee’s script merely stipulates that the characters are immigrants and that the actors should be non-white. What’s familiar from those predecessors, though, is Yee’s fascination with how parents and children come to know themselves by coming to know each other through, and her stealthy skill in building toward unforeseen emotional impact.
On the page, at least, Young Americans doesn’t have the stirring scope and stakes and moral complexities of the justly celebrated Cambodian Rock Band, which traded on both an underground psychedelic rock subculture and the murderous legacy of the Khmer Rouge. It feels less ambitious, too, than The Great Leap, which set family drama awkwardly at a nexus of sports and geopolitics. What Yee has fashioned here is fairly simple road-trip story. Actually, it’s two road trips, recounted episodically, one with a young couple on the cusp of marriage, the other with a father and daughter retracing the same weirdly circuitous Washington D.C.-to-Portland route. The result is a kind of all-purpose, or at least malleable, immigrants’ tale about the choices we make and about what of our lives and identities we can and can’t leave behind.
In a playbill interview with Yee and director Desdemona Chiang, Chiang speaks directly about the matter of American identity and how it is addressed in the play:
“I was recently having a conversation with a friend who was also born in Taiwan and we were talking about this idea of being Chinese-Hyphen-American. And she said something really profound. She said ‘I’m not Chinese-American, I’m Chinese and I’m American. I am not other in this nation. I am of this nation and of another nation.’ It got me thinking, what is the actual rubric for being American? Is it speaking English and paying taxes?…
‘The characters in this play have different approaches to that. One is enthusiastic to participate in the ‘mainstream’ culture and one is more resistant. Does that make one less American than the other? Like my mother — she banks Chinese, she shops Chinese, she speaks Mandarin. One could argue that she’s not culturally very American but she has an American passport and she pays taxes — she participates in the economic, social, political fabric of this country. So, I don’t know. And the only people who are truly of this land, the Indigenous people, are some of the most marginalized people in the country. It’s such a complicated question.”
Indeed it is. But Yee’s new play suggests that Americans – young and old – have some choice in the answers.
The reliably powerful Corrib Theatre presents Trade, a play by Mark O’Halloran. The descriptions in reviews – two men, “officially straight” (as TheaterMania put it), in a bed-and-breakfast room, with sexual tension prolonged and complicated by the anxious emotional outpourings of the older man – make it sound reminiscent in a way of the great Conor McPherson play Shining City. What’s especially enticing about this production, to my mind, is that it features the fantastic and all-too-seldom-seen actor Damon Kupper, who was a stalwart with Third Rail Rep in its glory days, and that it’s directed by the whip-smart Tamara Carroll.
Lakewood Theatre Company continues its “Lost Treasures” series, spotlighting lesser-known musicals, with The Happy Time, by the famed team of Kander & Ebb, about a reminiscences of a village childhood.
Time’s just about up for the Oregon Children’s Theatre romp Dragons Love Tacos; the “scrapbook musical” of Stephen Schwartz songs, Snapshots, at Broadway Rose; and writer/director Donald Horn’s loving Tammy Wynette tribute, Me and Tammy, from Triangle Productions.
The flattened stage
The best line I read this week
“Who’s the guy? He was a crime writer. He’d write a line like “She came in the door packing a pair of .38s.” Mickey Spillane! He said, “This writer came up to me and said, ‘Mr. Spillane, don’t you think it’s a tragedy that seven out of the 10 best-selling books last year were your books?’” And he said, “Shut up, or I’ll write three more.”
– novelist Walter Mosley, discussing America’s literary culture in an interview with The New York Times Magazine.
That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.