Jessica Huang's new play is about a time gone by but the issues it raises feel very immediate. Kaleidoscopic and timely, it turns on the true story of an ethnic immigration ban overcome, a hard-working new American, his efforts to support his village back home while starting anew here, and the way family secrets cause pain down through generations. In this fully staged outing, directed by Mei Ann Teo, the play is uneven but important, bold, and promising.

First, some little known history: The Chinese were the first ethnic group to suffer an immigration ban in the USA. Many Chinese came to California to work the gold rush of 1849 and build the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s. In subsequent decades, fear of these newcomers led to passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was regularly renewed, made permanent in 1902, and only repealed in the 1940s. It lasted for a total of 61 years. (Just five years ago, in 2012, Congress passed a bipartisan bill expressing regret for the long sequence of anti-Chinese legislation.)

In 1906 the San Francisco earthquake destroyed many relevant records. Since some US citizens of Chinese descent had returned to China for visits to the people left behind, and some had fathered children there, it was possible to claim blood relation to a US citizen. If you could convince immigration officers that you were the son or daughter of a US citizen, you were granted admission to this country. Dossiers of documents telling detailed family stories were sold to ambitious and desperate would-be immigrants, who committed them to memory. The vetting process to check out these stories often took weeks or months. Many so called 'paper sons and daughters' did not pass.

One who did was Harry Chin, who arrived in the States in 1939, and was given that name by immigration officers, who thought it funny. Playwright Huang researched his story through hours of conversation with his daughter, Sheila Chin-Morris, who granted permission for some artistic liberties.

Theatrical and non-linear, the play starts with a strong image: an empty, life-sized, white paper car that repeatedly starts its engine and turns on headlights. This eerie 'ghost car' invites us into the world of the play, where times and places overlap and interpenetrate. It's a challenging journey for the audience at first, until we accept that we are moving through the memories and fears and unresolved dilemmas in Harry Chin's mind. Scenes shift between 1939 and 1970, when Chin has lost his wife, his job as a cook, and is taxing his grown Chinese-American daughter's patience as he contends with ghosts from the past.

An ensemble of six actors carries all the roles in this two-act piece, which includes moments of humor as well as moments of tragedy. The most striking scenes depict the interrogations Chin endured for four months. The immigration officer is downright predatory: his voice is amplified and distorted animal sounds and growls. Kudos to the playwright, sound designer, and actors for committing to this strong choice: it worked for me.

The play asks a lot of designers, too. The space has to suggest two different apartments, a restaurant kitchen, a ship, the car and a boat. Lights help us move between realism and dream/memory/psychic space. Calligraphy also plays a role in the story. Efforts to bring this to theatrical scale via projections don't fully work, though the instinct to suggest rice paper in as many places as possible is sound.

THE PAPER DREAMS OF HARRY CHIN runs through April 9 in Saint Paul. The outside of the theater and the lobby both feature photos by Wing Young Huie of the descendants of paper sons and daughters, holding images of their ancestors. These are humane invitations to think about the consequences of exclusion acts, then and now. The History Theater has again provided a site where attention can be paid to matters that do truly matter.

Photo credit: Scott Pakudaitis

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