There has been a recent surge in the West of films and plays which are firmly focusing on the experiences of the Asian diaspora. While this rise has brought to light many fascinating stories which deserve to be told, the increased cultural exposure has also exposed a few running tropes in these Asian-centered stories. As these stories become more and more commonplace, it’s only a matter of time until family psychodramas revolving around vaguely defined notions of filial piety and self-sacrifice become worn out, overdone stereotypes.
However, A DEAL by Zhu Yi, is something different. Flying House Assembly’s new production of it which is playing at the Chippen Street Theatre and directed by Shiya Liu, manages to navigate tropes on the precipice of stereotype with a refreshing rawness, while taking an unapologetically nuanced stance on politically charged issues relating to the rise of China.
Written by a playwright who grew up in mainland China, A DEAL is deeply aware of its own uniqueness. A story an aspiring Chinese actress in New York called Li Su who fabricates a tragic story of state oppression in order to make a name for herself in a difficult Western market, A DEAL not only grapples with how the world sees China, but more interestingly, with how the Chinese see themselves. While Li Su slowly manages to find the mainstream approval and fame she’s always wanted, in a masterful stroke of dramatic irony, we the audience know that it will come at the cost of her relationship with her patriotic parents, who in true Chinese fashion, have come to New York to buy an apartment for their daughter with their nouveau riche cash so they can all live together as a family.
While the scenario itself is fraught with tension and comedy, and Lu’s direction manages to bring both out with great success, what’s more interesting is our reaction to it all as a Western audience. A DEAL could have very easily been a story we see all the time in our media – a feel-good story of people who flee oppressive regimes to the freedom of the West and then live happily ever after. While many of these stories are undoubtedly inspirational, the way they are told and understood by the West often comes with with a sense of self-congratulatory superiority. A DEAL incisively probes into this hubris that the liberal, democratic West represents the be all and end all of human development, and does not shy away from unfavourably contrasting our political system with China’s. Indeed, recent protests by mainland Chinese students in the West regarding Hong Kong has shown that there are people who fervently support China’s current mode of governance. In response to this, many Western commentators have not been able to understand how people could support an authoritarian regime with a history of brutality without dismissing their belief as the result of indoctrination, brainwashing, and intimidation. However, Li Su’s parents, played by Shikai Zhang and Susan Ling Young with a compelling mix of force and love, adds a complex, human face to this burgeoning nationalism. Together, they represent a new generation of mainland Chinese citizens who have begun refusing to take part in a cultural narrative that insists they are victims.
Like a whirlwind of warm air, Zhang is blustering yet affable as Mr Li, and is at his best during climactic scenes where, in the heat of an argument, he affirms with a booming conviction his loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party. He does so with such sincerity that we the audience are unable to dismiss what he says as the ravings of an indoctrinated fanatic, but instead have to empathise with the very real place of pain his loyalty comes from. Likewise Ling Young captures the paradoxical strength of a generation of mainland Chinese women Mrs Li represents, who were granted unprecedented freedoms and rights under Communism, yet found themselves still bound by undying patriarchal norms. Ling Young plays Mrs Li with sophistication and intelligence, creating a character confident in being both Chinese and a woman, and yet capable of a vulnerability where, without any words, her face alone can conjure a sense of loss for a life that could have been. Completing the family is Katherine Nheu, who is spirited in her portrayal of Li Su, capturing both the naivety behind her personal determination and her deep sense of familial guilt. Nheu evokes some of the most absorbing moments of the story in her dialogues with the cynical playwright Josh, played by a brilliant Simon Lee. But while Li Su is the play’s main character, it is ultimately Zhang and Ling Young who deliver the stand out performances of the show. Their characters rarely waver in their love for their country or for their family, and both actors poignantly meld the heartbreak and humour of their character’s situations as these two competing loves begin to conflict with each other.
While the play starts slow, the build up is well worth the wait, and it truly lives up to its description as a “dark comedy.” A DEAL is a highly relevant and intelligent story that adds an urgent political twist to a time-honoured migrant family drama. Aided by Lu’s engrossing direction, in two acts, it boldly captures the major clash of ideology and civilisations of our time through the minutiae of a Chinese family in New York. And while the implications of the play may trouble us, the power of the story and the performances gives us no choice but to critically engage with the ideas it presents.