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The Dragon and the Pearl

at the Organic Theater

By Albert Williams

May you live in interesting times" is an ancient Chinese curse disguised as a blessing, and Pearl Sydenstricker Buck certainly did. Born in West Virginia in 1892, she was raised in a China racked by revolution, invasion, and transformation from empire to republic. As the daughter of a Presbyterian missionary and a Westerner, she was scorned as a "foreign devil" by the "heathens" her father was devoted to converting. And though her landmark novel The Good Earth was a Depression-era best-seller, she found that celebrity also brought notoriety when her liberal views on racism, imperialism, and reproductive rights earned her enemies on the right and left alike. J. Edgar Hoover's FBI investigated her as "a champion of the colored races" with possible communist ties; China's Chou En-lai branded her an enemy of the people; Christian conservatives attacked her advocacy of reproductive rights; and the leftish artistic and intellectual elite sneered at her popular success in literature. (She was the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature, but she thought the award should have gone to Theodore Dreiser. So did Dreiser.)

An active and influential woman in a turbulent era, Pearl Buck is a likely candidate for a one-person show about a famous writer, which is what led producer Tony Cacciotti to commission such a play for his wife, Valerie Harper, from playwright Marty Martin. But unlike other literary heavyweights such as Gertrude Stein (played by Pat Carroll in an earlier Martin script), Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, and Emily Dickinson, Buck has no familiar public persona on which an actor can capitalize. Nor is her work filled with witty epigrams or clever conundrums or exquisite imagery. Drawing on the oral tradition of the land she grew up in, Buck was a storyteller, not a stylist; her solid, straightforward tales gave authentic and candid voice to Asian characters at a time when most Americans thought of Orientals in terms of Hollywood performances by the likes of Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and Myrna Loy (and, yes, Paul Muni and Luise Rainer when The Good Earth came to the screen).

Like Buck's books, Martin and Harper's solution to this problem is simple but innovative: rather than offering an impersonation of the author telling us about her life from a distance, interspersing anecdotes with readings, The Dragon and the Pearl is a story-theater take on episodes from Buck's experience, both real and imagined, in which Harper plays various roles. "Play" is the operative word: a veteran of the theater-games method developed by Chicago theater legends Viola Spolin and her son, director Paul Sills (in whose shows she appeared on Broadway), Harper portrays her multiple characters with a vigorous, vibrant joy in make-believe, executing character transformations and pantomime episodes with impressive craft and infectious enthusiasm.

This is true even when the subject matter is grim, as it often is. The play opens at "ground zero"--the aging Pearl at home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania--as she's trying to find a home for an Amerasian baby, one of a multitude of unwanted mixed-race children whom Buck sought to help by establishing the Welcome House adoption agency. Suddenly jumping back in time, Harper becomes little Pearl in China (her impression of a child's breathless energy is remarkable), devastated by the discovery of a dead baby in the street; then she morphs into Pearl's amah (governess), Wang, explaining why female infants are sometimes killed by their parents in a society where a baby boy is "great happiness" but a baby girl is only "a small happiness." Wang also talks about her "delicate," deformed feet, broken and bound in childhood according to custom, providing the play with a resonant image of female lives restrained or crippled by male-dictated tradition. This theme runs throughout the evening: from the sexual slavery endured by Chinese whores and farmwives alike to the whalebone corset Pearl refuses to wear at her American college; from the subtly sexist attitudes that led the writer to adopt at times a male pseudonym, John Sedges, to her fanatical father ("If he had lived in another time, he would have burned witches," she says), neglecting his wife while trying to save souls.

Yet though she repudiated the missionary zeal of her father and of her first husband, agricultural economist John Lossing Buck, Pearl was herself an evangelist--not of Christianity or agrarian reform but of the significance of women's experience, the greatness of Asian culture, and the worth of unwanted children--an intense concern in this play that seems to stem in large part from Pearl's sorrow and guilt over her daughter Carol, mentally disabled as the result of a childhood disease. One of the show's most powerful moments--due in part to Harper's technical skill and emotional flexibility--depicts Pearl placing the child in an institution, exchanging a farewell kiss and then losing her footing when the invisible Carol grips her hand as she tries to walk away. Harper's portrayal of Pearl's mother--first as the gigantic life force she seemed to little Pearl, then as the bitter woman the adult Buck understood her to be--reinforces the crucial relationship of mother and daughter.

In these and other scenes, The Dragon and the Pearl suggests its subject's complexity; Buck is a forceful exponent of a life lived in passionate commitment to causes, but that commitment comes at no small cost to her emotional life. Interestingly, the only traditionally powerful woman Harper portrays is the dowager empress of China, seen in a chilling sequence as a woman desexed and dehumanized by the ruthless purging of feeling that has enabled her to control the throne. (Harper also plays Pearl's friend Eleanor Roosevelt, gently and unsuccessfully urging her aloof husband to end the internment of Japanese-Americans and the segregation of the armed forces.)

I don't know if Pearl Buck was as animated a storyteller as Harper, but I doubt it; and while the script (based on Peter Conn's Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography) crams a good deal of factual information into two acts, it leaves out an awful lot too. The Dragon and the Pearl may be less than fully satisfying as biography, but it succeeds in celebrating the kind of tale spinning that not only transmits information but affirms the self in response to painful conditions. The script needs editing, but it's a treasure trove of ideas and feelings. And Harper, a forceful stage presence under Susan V. Booth's direction, is effectively supported by Rita Pietraszek's lighting and Joe Cerqua's sound, which transform Kerry Sanders's terrace set into a variety of locales--from bustling Shanghai streets and peasant huts to the throne room of the Forbidden City's imperial palace and the breakfast table of the Roosevelt White House. The simple but evocative shifts of color and shadow mirror Harper's subtle use of facial expressions, gesture, and rhythm to credibly switch races and ages as she tells the story of one remarkable woman and the women who inspired her.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jessica Tampas Photography.

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