This year, David Henry Hwang is the featured playwright of the Signature Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center. In addition to his 1998 play GOLDEN CHILD, the Signature will be producing an earlier work, THE DANCE AND THE RAILROAD, and the premiere of a new play, KUNG FU.
Hwang's plays focus on the culture clash between Asians and Asian-Americans and westerners over different periods in history and the ways in which Eastern culture has been diminished by western ideology and racial stereotypes. Most of the action of GOLDEN CHILD takes place in Fujian, China, in 1918-19. The head of the household, Eng Tieng-Bin is, as he claims, "the most successful Chinese businessman in the Philippines," though he keeps his family in Fujian. The family consists of three wives and their children. The wives all vie for the dominant position. "First wife," Eng Siu-Yong battles to keep the "old ways": traditional religion, foot-binding and, above all, the traditional way of sweeping all conflicts under the rug. Nothing should change. Men should continue to appear to have power though in reality women, particularly the first wife, should rule the household. "Second wife," Eng Luan, is a pragmatist, willing to adapt in any way necessary to maintain her position in the household. If her husband wants to be more western, she will wear western clothes. "Third wife," Eng Eling, is the one her husband loves. A servant promoted to the position of wife, she has the devotion of someone trained to be subordinate. We only see one of the children being raised in this house, Eng Siu-Yong's daughter, Eng Ahn, the "Golden Child," and narrator of the action of the play. As an old woman, she tells the story to her teenage grandson who is eager to record the history of his family.
Her story is one of change. Through his enterprises in the Philippines, a meeting place of East and West, Eng Tieng-Bin has been tempted by western values and by Christianity. He brings a Christian missionary back to Fujian to help "educate" his wives and children. He removes the binding from his eldest daughter's feet to free her, but the liberation is an excruciatingly painful one. He must enter into a Christian marriage with his favorite wife, but that destroys the status of First Wife and Second Wife. He desecrates traditional religious rituals. The results of his domestic revolution lead to the deaths of two of his wives. Yet, when we see his "golden child" fifty years later, she is a devout Christian who lives in the Phillipines.
Hwang's fascinating drama shows the validity of the "old religion" and the ways in which Christianity was destructive to one Chinese household. The dead do have power to effect the living. For all the man's assertion of power, women do rule.
Hwang's plays are always vividly theatrical. The conflict between East and West is played out in a theatrical style that combines the two traditions. Leigh Silverman has directed a production that does justice to the play's drama and its theatricality. Within Neil Patel's beautiful two-level set, this production of GOLDEN CHILD is a combination of realism and ritual. Everything about the production is visually stunning, from Anita Yavich's rich costumes to Matt Frey's complex, effective lighting scheme. I saw a preview of GOLDEN CHILD, but all the performances already seemed polished. Greg Watanabe captures Eng Tieng-Bin's confusion and his patriarchal sense of the right to destroy his own household. Julyana Soelistyo is particularly good as First Wife, but she also has the richest character to play. The only wife of the same class as her husband (it was an arranged marriage), she has little respect for the other two wives who are her social inferiors. She argues passionately and convincingly for the old ways, but she also is ruthless about maintaining her position. Even her death gives her power.
GOLDEN CHILD deserves a revival and this one couldn't be better. And, at the Signature's bargain price of $25, it must be seen.
One sad observation. I assume that the Signature's low ticket price is an attempt to attract a more diverse audience than one usually finds at the non-profit theaters. Alas, the theater is still filled with middle-aged and older theatergoers. How do we excite young folks about theater????
GOLDEN CHILD by David Henry Hwang. Directed by Leigh Silverman. Signature Theatre. October 27, 2012.