BWW Interviews: Black Lab Theatre's Director and Cast of CHINGLISH Talks Abut the Show
Black Lab Theatre is hard at work preparing the Regional Premiere of David Henry Hwang's CHINGLISH for Houston audiences. Recently, I visited a rehearsal at Asia Society Texas Center to talk to director Troy Scheid and her cast, featuring Mike Yager, Vivian Chiu, John Dunn, Xin Jian, Janice Pai Martindale, William Wu, and Andrea Huang about the show.
Me: It's hard to find a detailed synopsis of the play, so, in your opinions, what is CHINGLISH really about?
Troy Scheid: I think the best way for me to think about the play is as a comic thriller, and that's probably why you weren't able to find a lot of detailed information. The way the information is given to the audience builds suspense, and if we told you the real identity or the real background of some of the characters, it would spoil the surprise. It would spoil the rollercoaster effect of experiencing the plot for the first time, but, for me, it's about a journey between cultures where everything you assume at the beginning, as an audience member, ends up being turned on its head in ways that are still surprising. So it overturns many stereotypes, both from American culture and from Chinese culture. And, in the world of business, talking about what's an advantage and what's a disadvantage, it starts as a story of an innocent abroad who turns out to be not so innocent. Then there are enemies who are not enemies, friends who are not friends, and businesses that are not businesses, so it definitely keeps you guessing right up until the end.
John Dunn: I play the role of Peter Timms in the play, and he's a British man who has been living in China for 19 years. And, for me, I think CHINGLISH is about, kind of, struggling to find your identity. Are you who you really say you are? Is anyone? That's something that anybody who goes and travels to another country will feel right away. You kind of connect with the people there, but then you're not really one of them. Where do you fit? We're all looking for where we fit. The play uses the structure of the East meets West set-up to play on the ideas of that.
Mike Yager: I play Daniel Cavanaugh, the maybe not so innocent abroad. I think that Daniel has an interesting journey in the show in that he's in a place where he does not speak the language, much in the way that I am an actor that does not speak the language, and it surrounds me throughout the course of this process. I think that he comes to an understanding of this culture in what lies between what is said. I think he learns to listen in a very new way. In a more real way. And I think that's what David [Henry] Hwang works a lot into this script is that both cultures come to an understanding not through language but through a shared sense of humanity.
Vivian Chiu: (Timidly) I agree. (Everyone laughs.)
Troy Scheid: I will also say for anyone who's had a culture shock experience or an immersion in another culture, you always learn at least as much about your own culture, your own language, and yourself as you learn about the culture you're visiting because your constantly trying to negotiate the new culture that you're in, and the only way you do that is to constantly compare it yours. Even thinking about things you've never examined before or that you took for granted, like grammar.
Me: According to playwright David Henry Hwang, CHINGLISH was inspired by the "ridiculously translatEd English signs" in China. Did you look at or reference any of these in your preparation of the show?
Mike Yager: Well, they're referenced very explicitly in the script. That plays into the beginning of a lot of the humor of the earlier scenes, especially, and kind of setting up this divide of what is said and what is understood and what is misunderstood. So, a sign reading "Deformed Man's Toilets" is a wrong translation of "Handicap Restroom."
John Dunn: I actually found a sort of little coffee table book at Urban Outfitters or somewhere called Chinglish that had a bunch of these signs in it, and, of course, you can find them all over the internet. I think my favorite one in that book, at least, was one that was two signs pointing in the same direction, and one said "Night Clubs" and the one underneath it said, "Fixed Expectations District." (John Dunn and Troy Scheid Laugh) So, that was my favorite of the ones I'd found.