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PerformanceOnstageThe Algorithm speaks! BD Wong on the power of...

The Algorithm speaks! BD Wong on the power of ‘Big Data’

'I love manipulating the molecules in the air and changing the tone of the moment,' actor says of A.C.T. role

It didn’t take BD Wong long—or any time at all really—to say yes to a role in Kate Atwell’s “Big Data,” at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre through March 10. First of all, Wong, who lives in New York with his husband and son, gets to be in his hometown, performing at a theater he went to when he attended Lincoln High School and San Francisco State University. 

Then there’s Atwell’s script, which Wong thinks set itself apart from other plays. 

“It’s a very good play, and very rich. It’s a quality play,” Wong said on the phone. “It takes place in this moment in time, and it’s full of human insight and humor, and a sense of perspective about something we’re universally experiencing now. I think it’s a rare person who doesn’t relate to some aspect of it. That is a play that’s hard to write.”

What is this moment in time we’re in and what is this thing we can all relate to?Big Data” (you may have guessed from the title) deals with technology, and our part in how it has taken over much of our lives. In an interview in the play’s program, Atwell and Pam MacKinnon, the play’s director and A.C.T.’s artistic director, talk about how the play addresses surveillance capitalism. MacKinnon brings up Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” saying it looks at a family in the grind of capitalism in the mid-twentieth century. “And here we are 70 years later looking at a different grind,” she says. 

BD Wong in ‘Big Data.’ Photo by Kevin Berne

Wong (often wearing bright, sparkly clothes) plays an algorithm, coming into first Lucy and Max’s’ home, and then Sam (Lucy’s brother) and Timmy’s, playing on their insecurities, making them angry, mirroring their body language, and shape shifting to tell them both that they deserve what they think they want and that they are less than other people. Move faster, he tells Lucy, in a sort of job consultation, where he asks for the name of the street she grew up on and her childhood pet. You’ll miss out. You’ll get left behind. He is an unsettling presence but also can be comforting and entertaining.  

Wong, who won not only a Tony Award, but a Drama Desk Award, Outer Critics Circle Award, Clarence Darrow Award, and Theatre World Award (whew), for “M. Butterfly,” has been in numerous plays as well as on TV in shows like “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” and “Oz,” and movies including Father of the Bride and Jurassic Park. Besides finding “Big Data” resonant and moving, he adds that he particularly enjoys costume changes—this role gives him plenty—and he admires A.C.T.’s artistic leadership. 

“It’s a funny part. I do love to engage with the audience, and I love comedy,” Wong said. “I love manipulating the molecules in the air and changing the tone of a moment from funny to not funny. The part needs to give you the opportunity to do that.”

 BD Wong and Gabriel Brown in ‘Big Data.’ photo by Kevin Berne

For Wong, the play hits a nerve, which is what he wants. He’s had conversations with others about the weirdness of talking about something over dinner and then something related showing up on your phone the next day. We have pretty much accepted the “mystery” of that, he thinks, and audience members have told him “Big Data” makes them question it. 

“You reach for it [the phone] and you think, ‘Oh, look at me, I’m reaching for it. That’s interesting. Like, why am I reaching for it? Do I really need to reach for it? When was the last time I reached for it?’” Wong said. “I think a lot of quote-unquote normal, average people don’t think about it, they go with it. It is a huge part of their lives, and they don’t think a second thought about it at all.

So, what’s nice about the play, one of the many nice things about the play, is this raising of awareness, just a simple pointing it out. And to go, ‘Oh, I did notice myself’ but then your partner says, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t hear what you were saying. I was distracted.’ Who hasn’t had that conversation? Who hasn’t been frustrated with their partner? And also, who hasn’t had their partner frustrated with them because of that thing?”

BIG DATA through March 10 at A.C. T., SF. More information here.

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