This past weekend I had the pleasure of going to see the World Premiere of “This is Not a True Story” produced by Artists at Play in partnership with the Latino Theater Company. Playwright Preston Choi tackles the white man’s stereotypical representation of Asian women in three works: firstly, in the “canonical” (note quotations) opera Madama Butterfly and musical Miss Saigon, and in a more modern iteration of the Asian female, in the movie “Kumiko the Treasure Hunter.” All three works portray the central protagonists as damsels in distress, ones who need saving, ones who cannot endure the tragedy that befalls them by the American lovers who jilt them, and instead, succumb to suicide.
The women–CioCio from Madama Butterfly, Kim from Miss Saigon, and Kumiko (or Takako, the real woman for whom the movie was based on)—are cursed to live out their lives and deaths over and over again in a liminal purgatory where their true voices contend with the stories that were written for them. The play opens with CioCio, played by Julia Cho, gutting herself with a dagger, once, twice, one-hundred, nine-thousand times and so on. Every time she kills herself, she is condemned to live again and experience the birth and loss of a child, the agony of heartbreak, and the pain of a self-inflicted death. Every time she attempts to challenge her given circumstance or to deviate from the way she has been written, a booming, God-like voice overhead reprimands her “THAT IS NOT YOUR LINE!” When Kim, who was a character adaptation of CioCio, played by Zandi DeJesus, lands herself in the same space, she is simultaneously defiant with and reliant on CioCio to cope with the miserable repetition of her own story’s tragedy.
While CioCio and Kim, characters in the most widely produced works with Asian female leads, clash over how to deal with the hellish nightmare of being trapped in the scripts in which they were written, Kumiko, played by Rosie Narasaki, enters the liminal space with a desire to seek the truth, to distinguish the movie character Kumiko from the real-life Takako, the former being portrayed as a naïve caricature who was purported to have been looking for money buried in the snow of Fargo based on the Coen brothers film by the same name. So the mythology of Takako goes, though in real life, she could not have been that stupid, and such a story was more likely to have come from the police officers who deemed it reasonable to call a Chinese restaurant to assist in translation with this young, Japanese woman traveling alone. It is the arrival of Kumiko/Takako that compels the three women to move beyond commiseration and to strategize an escape. But what does escape look like? And can they ever be truly free?
This play was delightful on so many levels. Firstly, I was in tears of laughter from beginning to near end. I say near end because in the final moments, the tears turned to sadness and a glimmer of hope. Having read this manuscript before watching the play, I was struck by how truly theatrical the piece was. The reading experience did not come even close to the audience experience, which included stylized Asian accents—we were instructed to laugh at them—and babies flying in on ziplines. The trio of actresses were superbly adept at the physical humor and at all the sharp turns in moods and voice. They were dynamic, compelling, and so fun to watch.
Despite my laughter, I found myself empathizing with their plight. As an Asian American writer, actress, and human, I have felt the projections of Asian female on my body through a white male gaze, a colonialist, imperialist gaze, a frat boy gaze, whatever—all the ways in which I did not get to choose how I was seen. I felt the import of the play, which I consider to be deeply feminist in its messaging, and this can only be credited to the playwright Preston Choi, who found a uniquely creative way to deconstruct a longstanding and oft discussed issue of stereotyping and objectifying the Asian female without hammering our heads with pedantry. I’ll just say it: someone is going to write their Ph.D. dissertation on this play someday.
I enjoyed the play so much, I reached out to Director Reena Dutt, who was first introduced to the work through an Artist at Play reading series. The play spoke to Dutt so viscerally that the seed of direction came to her in a dream (yes, the flying babies!) Dutt shares in the feminist reading of the play, saying that in terms of BIPOC representation, she is no longer interested in “gratuitous female pain” and instead seeks out art that celebrates “BIPOC female joy”. An actress herself, Dutt knows all too well the issues of representation for Asian women, but she is clear-eyed about the changing landscape over generations. She says, “Tragedy with BIPOC women is not entertainment anymore” and “at what point do we gain agency?”
The answer to this question is not only in the play, but in the power of collaboration and the process of production. Dutt is quick to credit Artist at Play, a female-powered AAPI theater of which Julia Cho is also a founding producing partner, for their willingness to support her vision and to respect all members of the team, from designers to performers. Dutt describes Artists at Play as “changing the culture of how we work in the theater.” It stands to reason that the best theater will be born out of a community of artists who feel heard and respected. As Dutt exclaims, “It takes a team to care about the story,” and in this case, the story delivered.
“This is Not a True Story” is playing through October 15 at LATC. Reena Dutt is currently the Assistant Director to Leigh Silverman for Hansol Jung’s play MERRY ME at the New York Theatre Workshop.