Jessica Huang’s strength as playwright of The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin at the History Theatre is her empathetic and culturally astute ear for the characters. In turn, director Mei Ann Teo has a gift for guiding her wonderful cast into deep emotional undercurrents that are irrefutably powerful at times. Song Kim delivers a devastating performance in the title role. Dutiful Harry is a man forced to be duplicitous by the U.S. immigration bureaucracy and in the ugly process is tossed into a whirlpool of supporting two families, unbeknownst to each other, in two different countries. Family members survived because of his extraordinary work ethic and loyalty. The actual title character emigrated from China to the U.S. in the 1920s and cooked at the legendary (and gorgeous) Nankin Cafe, which many of us old time Minneapolitans still lament no longer exists!
The core of the play’s conflict is set into motion by the Chinese Exclusion Act. This act was a convoluted work of bureaucratic tyranny which had to do with forged papers and cruelly induced memorization. Though this production is certainly engaging, Huang still needs to sharpen that element more clearly in her script. Details about the Act need to be shaped into the play’s structure and stream-of-consciousness approach to the story. It seems if the Chinese Exclusion Act was designed to confuse, rather than empower, so it would be exceedingly helpful to have articulated that intricately into the script. Another recent politically inclined script, James Still’s Miranda at Illusion Theater, had a generally similar problem as it didn’t get into the weeds, so to speak, of just what exactly was going on with the CIA in Yemen in the Obama era. Plays dealing with political issues have to find a way of making that understood dramatically. Arthur Miller and August Wilson were finessed masters of this. Brits Edward Bond and Hugh Whitemore have also shined in this capacity.
Nonetheless, the History Theatre production shimmers with rich performances from each cast member. Audrey Park and Sandra Struthers poignantly capture the denial and anguish of Harry’s two wives. Meghan Kreidler compels as Harry’s daughter Sheila. Sherwin Resurreccion and Rolando Martinez provide dynamic and imaginative support in various roles. Despite the rambling nature of the play, they all find great character moments. For example: Martinez’s use of guttural sounds in one scene that refracts Harry’s inner torment and how the play relates the unfolding realization of what Harry’s life has actually been. This realization is vividly rendered by the women in the cast and, of course, Kim.
All said, Huang has a remarkable sense of metaphor. For instance, the use of an automobile as part of the storytelling and the act of cooking. This is also mystically enhanced by Joel Sass’ set design, Katharine Horowitz’s sound design, and Wu Chen Khoo’s lighting.
The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin
Through April 9
History Theatre, 30 E 10th St., St. Paul