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PerformanceStage Review'The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin' crackles with an...

‘The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin’ crackles with an immigrant’s experience

Jessica Huang’s new play at SF Playhouse tells a heavy family tale, laced with comedy and the supernatural.

One of the most famous lines in Shakespeare’s oeuvre is the line “What’s in a name?”

From a logical standpoint, not too much. After all, the line comes from a girl who just met a cute boy at a party, but the only thing in their way is their names. Yet, names mean quite a lot to we “civilized” creatures. Names carry power and distinction, a way of not only categorizing something, but also a way of recognizing one’s own self-worth. It can be as demeaning as enslaved people being stripped of their names to force them into a caste, or transgender people rejecting their dead names as self-empowerment. On a fundamental level, names are how we classify the world; on a personal level, they’re how we see ourselves.

The eponymous character of Jessica Huang’s new play The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin (running through June 18 at SF Playhouse) knows the power of names all too well; it’s why he picked the one he did.

Before we even make it that far into the story, we meet the titular Chinese immigrant in the 1970s when he serves as the longtime cook of a small restaurant. Despite his accent being as thick as ever, he’s assimilated well into the US. He even has a grown American daughter, Sheila, whose couch he’s currently sleeping on. He was married to Sheila’s mother, Laura, but she’s not around for reasons we don’t know at the beginning.

Will Dao in ‘The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin.’ Photo by Jessica Palopoli

Despite his apparent security, Harry is a man haunted. He’s haunted by the brow-beating procedures of US immigration officers that threatened to refuse his entry. He’s haunted by the face of a Poet, a would-be fellow immigrant cursed to not make the journey’s end as he did. He’s haunted by the face of woman name Yuet whom he left back in China. Most of all, he’s haunted by the wife no longer around.

That might not sound like the description of a show that frequently ventures into comedic territory, but playwright Huang is wise enough to know that the audience needs a breather from all the heavy family drama and strange goings-on that may or may not be supernatural.

With those metaphysical happenings, the playwright infuses the story with a freshly Chinese perspective that lends character to the work. From Harry dismissing Sheila’s claim that ghosts have arrived early (apparently, they’re on a seven-month timeline) to his plastering Chinese incantations around the apartment to keep them at bay. A later scene in which they all arrive in traditional “afterlife” clothing (in costumes designed by Becky Bodurtha) at least feels authentic to someone like me, who isn’t familiar with the rituals.

What’s more familiar is the generation gap shown between the undeniably Chinese Harry and the thoroughly American Sheila. We learn that Sheila’s “Americaness” owes a lot to her white mother, Laura, who forbade her husband and daughter from speaking Harry’s native tongue because she thought she’d be “all alone” in their small family. In fact, one of the more curious dropped story threads is how the racism of this act—intentional or not—is never fully explored.

Sharon Shao in ‘The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin.’ Photo by Jessica Palopoli

Perhaps it’s because she isn’t part of the story proper, but Laura is presented almost without fault, practically trapped in a rote marriage to Harry (a relationship she initiated and pursued) whose secrets she can never decipher until they intrude upon their life in the states.

On the one hand, Laura is so crucial to explaining Harry and Sheila that dropping her from the story may have left a void and had tipped the overall casting scales to the men’s side. On the other hand, dropping her would have likely given more time to Yuet, with whom Harry had a relationship in China, and Susan, another character from China. Laura feels more like an anchor to the story rather than a strong addition.

That’s not the fault of actress Carrie Paff, who expresses her character’s lusts and frustrations. In fact, all of director Jeffrey Lo’s cast find the hearts of their characters, including the always reliable Jomar Tagatac as Harry. Will Dao brings an almost childlike sadness to the nameless Poet, wanting so hard to grasp what Harry takes for granted.

Yet, the show truly belongs to Kina Kantor as Sheila and the ever-talented Sharon Shao as both Yuet and Susan. The two actresses represent personify the dichotomy of Harry’s Chinese and American lives, but never lose the individuality of the women they play. It makes Harry’s hypocrisy in dealing with them all the more prominent: they aren’t ciphers or abstracts that he can ignore; they’re people whom he dismisses in a way that should (and does) make us uncomfortable.

Sharon Shao, Will Dao, Jomar Tagatac, Kina Kantor in ‘The paper Dreams of Harry Chin.’ Photo by Jessica Palopoli

Also working well in Lo’s favor is the rather “cramped” set by Christopher Fitzer. Consisting of only two levels atop the Playhouse’s signature rotating set, Lo and his collaborators turn a claustrophobic-looking two-story piece into Sheila’s apartment, Harry’s apartment, an immigrant detention barracks, a home in China, and many more locations over the course of the show’s running time. Having recently seen so many shows where elaborate sets gave the performers little room to work, it’s worth congratulating a set, cast, and crew who make excellent use of a finite amount of space.

At the start of the second act, one of the interrogation officers—all of whom have spoken indecipherably, to mimic Chinese-to-English translation loss—speaks in a language Harry clearly understands. It’s the “language” of the immigrant experience. The officer (Michael Torres) was born as “José,” but now goes by “John” so as to not make his American (white) colleagues uncomfortable. He’s learned to torment Harry and Poet in a “shit rolls downhill” fashion that serves as the catalyst for “Harry” choosing such a bland, easy-to-say name. A name has power, power that can be used to harm others rather than yourself.

Though the SF Playhouse’s COVID checks remain the same (checkered seating with a clientele who constantly “forget” to put their masks back up), The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin has been one of the highlights of their return season. Not a perfect show by any means and probably in need of another few edits, but it crackles with life thanks to the skilled hands that realized it.

THE PAPER OF HARRY CHIN runs through June 18 at the San Francisco Playhouse. Tickets and info here.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Charles Lewis III
Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theatre artist, and arts critic. You can find dodgy evidence of this at thethinkingmansidiot.wordpress.com

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