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Culture Clash

East meets West within the confines of a Chinese household in David Henry Hwang's Golden Child.


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WHEN Through 4/22: Thu 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 4 and 8 PM, Sun 4 PM

WHERE Chicago Temple, First United Methodist Church, 77 W. Washington

PRICE $25-$28

INFO 312-857-1234, ext. 201

"When you have faults, do not fear to abandon them," said Confucius, and the hero of David Henry Hwang's Golden Child is determined to do just that, casting off a traditional way of life he considers outmoded and repressive. Tieng-Bin, a wealthy merchant in 1918 China, is the relatively enlightened husband of three women. For years he's unquestioningly accepted his patriarchal prerogatives and duties, keeping peace among his wives and praying to his dead parents nightly. ("In the house of his birth, a man is always a child," he says.) But he's increasingly drawn to the ways of the West--including the strange religion his business partners practice, symbolized by a naked man nailed to a cross. In this offbeat tale, he turns his family's lives upside down as he comes to accept Christianity, with ironic and sometimes tragic results.

As he did in his best-known play, the 1988 Broadway hit M. Butterfly, Hwang analyzes the way complex, conflicting, and sometimes soul-warping concepts of male and female dominance and submission shape domestic life in Asian and European cultures. M. Butterfly tells the fact-based story of a French diplomat whose passion for the image of fragile Asian femininity draws him into a disastrous affair with a Chinese opera singer--who turns out to be a female impersonator and communist spy. In Golden Child, Tieng-Bin is torn between Christian and traditional Chinese notions of virtuous male-female relations. Should marriage be defined as the union of one man and one woman? Or does polygamy serve essential social and moral needs as well as sexual ones? And how does polygamy affect not only the husband's master-servant relationship with his wives but the wives' hierarchical relationships with one another?

Tieng-Bin may be the master of his household, but the women rule the roost. The wives--who know that their survival depends on their marriage to this successful businessman--have learned how to manipulate him. Each realizes that her seeming weakness is her strength; as Siu-Yong, the eldest, observes, "Humility is power." Siu-Yong, whose marriage was arranged before she and Tieng-Bin were born, runs the household, which involves defending domestic traditions against any weird foreign influences. It's a difficult job, from which she periodically seeks retreat in opium. Christianity threatens her and her world, and she detests the "white devils," whose faith is an affront to the ancestor worship she practices. "At least I pray to someone I know personally," she scoffs.

Siu-Yong's younger "sisters" are more inclined to change and survive. Luan, the second wife, was sold into the marriage after her family lost its fortune. She understands that if her husband turns Christian he'll choose a single spouse--and she intends to make sure it's her. But pretty young third wife Eling--a peasant who came into the house as Luan's servant--is by far Tieng-Bin's favorite, the only one of the three he married for love.

While the wives regard Christianity as a necessary evil at best or an assault at worst, Tieng-Bin's daughter--Ahn, the lucky "golden child"--welcomes the change. Her father's embrace of Western values means she can go to school and live independently as a "spinster" rather than be forced to wed like her mother, Siu-Yong. Most important, it means she can unbind her feet, for Tieng-Bin intends to end the ancient practice in his home.

The crux of the drama is the conflict among the four females as they respond to Tieng-Bin's conversion to Christianity. With its emphasis on free will and personal relationships with God, it's at odds with traditional Chinese beliefs emphasizing the individual's subordination to an ancient network of obligations. The women work within that network, vying for status through schemes disguised as elaborate rituals of public humility. They endeavor to outcompliment one another at dinner, for example, putting their rivals on the spot by touting the others' accomplishments and denigrating their own. "Her modesty was shameless," one wife fumes afterward.

When Golden Child was presented on Broadway in 1998, a New York Times reviewer complained that it seemed more like "a boiled-down novel than a theater piece." But the scale and commercialism of a Broadway production can work to a script's disadvantage. In its midwest premiere by the Silk Road Theatre Project, an adventurous little troupe specializing in work that reflects Asian and Middle Eastern experience, Golden Child is a crackling drama that melds cultural commentary with urgent, often witty storytelling. Silk Road's small, handsome space in the lower level of the historic Chicago Temple in the Loop suits director Stuart Carden's intimate, briskly paced staging. The cast--Vic Chao as Tieng-Bin, Cheryl Hamada as Siu-Yong, Kimberlee Soo as Luan, Tiffany Villarin as Eling, and UIC student Melissa Kong as Ahn--is uniformly strong. Lee Keenan's set emphasizes the story's theatricality with a triangular arrangement of the wives' curtained beds, which suggest miniature prosceniums, and Robert Steel's haunting, driving music supports the sometimes abrupt shifts in tone.

Hwang's own grandmother was the model for Ahn, and he describes Golden Child as both "an American playwright's act of ancestor worship" and a work of self-exploration. Indeed, the action is recounted in flashback as Ahn's ghost visits her grandson, a New York writer with a pregnant wife. Rooted in the China of almost a century ago yet reflective of contemporary experience, this smart, funny, touching play considers the tangle of sex, spirituality, obedience, hypocrisy, morality, and injustice involved in the process of seismic social change.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Golden Child photo/courtesy of Johnny Knight Studio.

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