Joanna Chan, Artistic Director
WELCOME TO YANGTZE THEATRE OF AMERICA
Yangtze Repertory Theatre of America was founded in 1992 to produce works for and by Asian artists. Since then, it has become New York's most significant entry point for dramatic works from Chinese-speaking countries and a place of collaboration for artists from various parts of Asia.
Yu-Huan, of the House of Yang, has been an undiminshed subject of literature and fine arts throughout thirteen centuries. Her death marked the end of 130 years of unprecedented prosperity in China's Middle Kingdom and a golden age of artistic outpourings. Her life story is the subject of "The Story of Yu-Huan" by Joanna Chan, to be presented by Yangtze Repertory Theatre of America May 30 to June 22 at Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave. (at E. 10th St.), directed by the author and choreographed by Ashley Liang.
Yu-Huan was born of Royal lineage and trained as an artist as were other women of her station. She lived in an era when extraordinary women, cultured and literate, played dominant roles in public affairs. At 15, she married Prince Shou, a son of Emperor Xuan Zong who, at a chance encounter, fell in love with her and took her for his own. Unlike many of the women in the royal circle, Yu-Huan harbored no personal ambition and was submissive to her fate. In the tumultuous and desperate hour of General An Lu-Shan's rebellion, toward the end of the reign of Emperor Xuan Zong, she was made to bear the brunt of the people's rage and ordered to take her own life.
It was an age when, to maintain peace with warring ethnic groups (in today's Tibet, Mongiolia, Manchuria and Xinjang), the Middle Kingdom dispatched beautiful, well-bred women to remote regions as trophies. They brought with them the beguilement of the arts and the pacifism of their new-found religion, Buddhism. Warriors were recruited from the "outer" tribes (who were often of different skin colors and languages) to contain their own people. With this, the Middle Kingdom was able to annex through culture and religion the fiercely independent states it could not acquire by war. One warrior, An Lu-Shan, was made commander-in-chief of the city known today as Beijing. He stalks this play like a Cassius; his revolt of 755 A.D. brought on the rapid decline of the Tang Dynasty.
This new version of Yu Huan's story will be performed in English and Mandarin and will be completely understandable to English-speaking audiences. It joins the body of the playwright's work as an indictment of a cultural tradition not governed by law, where the most basic of all rights falls victim to the whims of a self-appointed few. In the Chinese tradition of playwriting, there is no psychological dialogue--the horror of the story is communicated in the facts of the play and in the characters' actions. Throughout the play, Yu-Huan does not get to speak; her fate is hammered home as the decisions of her life are made for her.
Characters from the "foreign" provinces are cast with caucasian and African-American actors; the balance of the cast (50%) is pan-Asian. Prince Shou, General An (a foreign character), and a Princess sent to the remote north speak in English; the characters from the Middle Kingdom (half the cast) perform in Mandarin. This is an experiment in bi-lingual drama: the English text is intended to combine with the movement of the Chinese-speaking characters and the production's dances to deliver a fulfilling evening to English-speaking audiences without the use of projected subtitles. (English-speakers will probably come out thinking they speak Chinese.)
The multi-ethnic cast of 16 includes its choreographer, Ashley Liang, as Yu-Huan, the title character. Original score is by Xiren Wang. Set design is by Edward Morris. Costume design is by Harrison Xu HaoJian.
Playwright/director Joanna Chan returned early this year from directing a hugely successful production of her political drama, "The Soongs, By Dreams Betrayed," for Hong Kong Repertory Theatre at the Grand Theatre at Hong Kong Cultural Centre. She is Artistic Director of Yangtze Repertory Theatre of America, a company she co-founded in 1992, dedicated to works by and for Asian artists. Jan Stuart (Newsday) labeled "Fou Lei and Fou Ts'ong," a true family tragedy of a world-class Chinese pianist which she produced and starred in, as "a jewel of theater craftsmanship." She directed the Yangtze Rep production of "The Eternal Game" by Wang Wei-Zhong and "The Sound of a Voice" by David Henry Hwang at Theater for the New City in 1996. After seeing these productions, New York Theatre Wire critic Bert Wechsler wrote, "The company overall has superb production values....Joanna Chan's direction was clear, uncluttered, exact, and always intelligent. Her pan-Asian Yangtze Repertory Company of America is a vital element of New York's theatre scene. It deserves support and we eagerly await its next production."
Ms. Chan has also headed New York's Four Seas Players (1970-77, 83-92) and the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre (1986-90).
Yangtze Repertory Theatre of America has become New York's most significant entry point for dramatic works from Chinese-speaking countries and a place of collaboration for artists from various parts of Asia. Chan's own plays include the political and controversial drama, "The Soongs: By Dreams Betrayed," which she directed in January for Hong Kong Repertory Theatre at the Grand Theatre at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. Her "One Family One Child One Door," a black comedy on the human cost of China's one-child policy, premiered in 2001, was revived twice and was a finalist in the Jane Chambers Playwriting Contest. Her 1998 drama, "Crown Ourselves With Roses," was selected as one of 23 most significant works in Chinese theater in the past 100 years for "An Anthology of Modern Chinese Drama" published by Columbia University Press in 2011. An English version of her 1985 drama, "Before the Dawn-Wind Rises," was included in "An Oxford Anthology of Chinese Contemporary Drama" in 1997. She was commissioned by Hong Kong Repertory Theatre to write and direct "The Empress of China," based on the first encounter of the American and the Chinese people in 1786, which received its premiere in Hong Kong in January 2011, followed by a New York production in June 2011.
The nearly 70 productions Chan has directed include her own works and classics. Reviewing Chan's "Oedipus Rex" at Sing Sing in 2006, Michael Millius wrote in the (Bedford, NY) Record-Review, "You might think I’d have seen some great theater over the years with my aunt, Michael Strange being married to John Barrymore, or my work with Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber as creative director of MCA Music. But still, even after all that, and more than half a century of theatergoing, I was not prepared for the experience of seeing a performance of "Oedipus Rex" by inmates at Sing Sing prison. When written by Sophocles circa 430 B.C. (and considered by the ancient Greeks to be his best work), the author couldn’t have imagined how his play would enjoy one of its finest hours 2,500 years later, being rendered by inmates in a maximum-security prison."
Theater for the New City has been home to many of Yangtze Repertory Theatre of America's milestone productions, including its 1997 presentation of "Between Life and Death," written and directed by Gao XingJian, the 2000 Nobel laureate in literature.
This program is made possible by the New York State Council on the Arts with the suport of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York Legislature. It is supported, in part, with public funds from the New York State Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council.
NY TIMES REVIEW of "Luna," an evening of dance, choreographed by Max Luna III (September 22-23, 2006)
NEW YORK TIMES REVIEW of our production of "Teahouse," performed in NYC by Beijing People's Art Theatre (November 27-December 1, 2005)
NEW YORK TIMES
November 16, 2006
Oedipus Max: Four Nights of Anguish and Applause
in Sing Sing
To enter a maximum-security prison to see inmates put on a Greek tragedy, in this case Oedipus Rex, at Sing Sing is to descend into an echo chamber of ironies. An ancient story of murder and banishment brought to life by banished murderers. Imaginary horrors summoned in solid flesh by men whose own stories are horrifying and real.
It’s a lot to ponder as you hand over wallet, keys, watch and train schedule at the prison entrance. As for your illusions and misperceptions about inmates and prison life, those you surrender inside.
I went to Sing Sing with the play’s director, Sister Joanna Chan of the Maryknoll order, whose headquarters is not far from the Hudson River bluffs on which Sing Sing has hunkered since the 1820s. Sister Joanna, who is petite, Chinese and in her 60s, had been working with the inmates since June, and Friday’s performance was the last in a four-night run. The cast and crew, serving time for murder, rape, robbery, assault and other crimes, called her Grandma.
We walked through long, low corridors to the auditorium, called the Chapel, with a high ceiling of exposed steel beams and the grimy yellow light of bare bulbs. Nuns and other visitors from town nibbled cheese cubes and drank coffee from paper cups. A few mingled with inmates, easy to pick out not by their air of menace but by their green pants.
There were jitters in the room, not in the audience but in the cast and crew, the bustling nerves of any amateur production. Previous nights had gone well, I was told. The play had even won over B-block, a brutal crowd. Tonight’s show was for guests, and the final chance to shine.
I met the assistant director, an inmate with a white skullcap and deep-set eyes who went by his Muslim name, Bilal. He told me how faith helped him to face his guilt in murder, and how theater polished the tarnished gem inside. Like other inmates I met, he had the taut intensity of someone gripping his beliefs tightly, so as not to let them get away.
Sing Sing, the former home of Old Sparky, is not widely known as a progressive place. But its theater program is a rarity in New York prisons. It relies on a nonprofit group, Rehabilitation Through the Arts, and the savvy benevolence of Sing Sing’s superintendent, Brian Fischer, who considers its virtues self-evident.
The inmates chose Oedipus Rex because they had done more than a dozen productions, including Jitney, by August Wilson, and wanted something really difficult. Sister Joanna persuaded them to choose Sophocles over Shakespeare, since it was more accessible and would fit in the maximum allowed two hours.
She took me backstage before the curtain rose. The cast
and crew held hands in a circle and prayed for a good show. Jocasta,
Oedipus’s wife and mother, was an actress from New York City
and the cast’s only non-inmate. She told everyone how proud
she was. Oedipus, with tongue-in-cheek pomposity, demanded silence
and offered encouragement. Please, let’s kill them all,"
he said. We all knew what he meant.
This production went to Greece by way of the five boroughs, as the ancients were summoned to be asked important questions about a foretold murder. But the men hit their marks precisely, and moved and spoke with elegance and conviction. If they were haunted by the play’s resonance in their lives, they didn’t show it. They seemed like people trying to produce art, and in so doing to somehow assert an identity better than the one of murderer, rapist, robber, that had overwhelmed all others.
As I watched, I wondered what it would be like to be defined by my own worst sins. It struck me that when people are locked up for horrible crimes, a lot of goodness and beauty necessarily get locked up too. It also seemed that the Theban society onstage, though afflicted by plague, vengeance and divine cruelty, was probably gentler and saner than the one the inmates knew. Its members clearly cared for one another, and were not numb to grief.
When Oedipus made his final entrance, blinded and lurching, from stage left, the Chorus trembled, and shock and sorrow rose on cue in the hushed auditorium, just as it has for the last 2,500 years.
Sister Joanna told me later that chorus members had been reluctant in rehearsal to touch one another, though they eventually got past it. Oedipus, a man of conspicuous self-control, had particular trouble losing it for his final breakdown, when he collapses into the arms of Creon, his uncle and brother-in-law. He didn’t pull it off until Monday’s dress rehearsal. On Friday, Sister Joanna thought she saw real tears.
After the curtain fell and the cheers and applause finally died, the crew joined the cast onstage, with officers quickly posted on the left and right steps. The inmates crowded the footlights, straining for the hands of audience members who filed slowly past to say thank you, great job, wonderful show. Clearing the room of visitors in small escorted groups took nearly an hour. The inmates never stopped chattering and hugging, their faces shining with relief, and with the yearning to savor every moment before the spell was broken and they were taken to their cells.
Review | Luna
Max Luna III took his audience on a winding ride on Friday night in choreography presented by the Yangtze Repertory Theater of America at the Schimmel Center at Pace University. The evening opened with two dances so blandly generic — though one, “Cold Song," featured a powerful performance by Jason Jordan — that you wondered not where the real Mr. Luna was hiding, but if he indeed existed.
Mr. Luna, a former Alvin Ailey dancer, emerged in two pieces that made it plain that he had something of his own to say and the skill to say it. He works in a modern-dance idiom colored by the traditional dancing of his native Philippines, represented in “Tinig Ng Lupa," the evening’s closing dance.
“The Hurt We Embrace," to music by Jan Kaczmarek, was a traditional wrecked-relationship duet, but the vagaries of love were observed and communicated with extra shrewdness in choreography performed with affecting intensity by Joseph Watson II and Roberta Sorrenti. Everything came together in Mr. Luna’s new “Mga Awit (A Love Cycle for Voice, Cello & Piano)," danced to music full of dramatic incident, composed by Michael Dadap and performed live by Sal Malaki (tenor), Marc Tagle (cello) and Cynthia Guerrero DeLeon (piano).
Mr. Luna’s program notes describe the piece as “dedicated to my partner, Alan, who has shown me that the miracle of love renews and grows through the cycles of life." The suite brims with cycles of growth and renewals, particularly in two group segments that stand out for their unexpected thrusts and patterns. Mr. Luna knows how to move his dancers and juxtapose them and his onstage musicians. The bright opening solo by Matt Anctil and a lush duet for Mr. Jordan and Mica Bernas are as authoritative, and feel as personal. Good dancers all, so why no program biographies?
LAO SHE'S "TEAHOUSE"
BY BEIJING PEOPLE'S ART THEATRE
Steeped in 50 Years of China's Subjugation
By WILBORN HAMPTON, NEW YORK TIMES
First performed in 1958, "Teahouse" has been a favorite work of one of China's favorite writers, before and after the Cultural Revolution. The current revival, which is performed in Mandarin with English supertitles and sponsored in New York by the Yangtze Repertory Theater, is playing a limited run that ends tonight at Pace Downtown Theater, 3 Spruce Street in Lower Manhattan.
The play covers 50 years of Chinese history, and a unifying theme that runs through it is the subjugation, often willing, of China to foreign interests and powers through the first half of the 20th century. Spending an evening at the Yutai teahouse with the Beijing Theater helps explain the excesses of Maoism.
All of the action takes place in the teahouse, owned by Wang Lifa. The cross section of its customers range from pimps, gangsters and opium addicts to rich idlers who bring songbirds in their cages for entertainment, government spies, secret policemen and rebels. Tea is not the only commodity sold there.
The first act takes place in 1898, on the eve of the Boxer Uprising, as the Qing dynasty is in its death throes and although the Yutai denizens still wear their hair in pigtails, British influence is paramount. Poverty in the countryside is rampant, and peasants go to the teahouse to sell their children to wealthy mandarins.
The second act jumps forward 20 years to the time just after the death of Yuan Shih-kai, the successor to Sun Yat-sen as head of the Chinese republic. Warlords, each backed by a foreign power, have split China apart and the country is in a state of perpetual civil war. Wang has tried to keep his teahouse intact by taking in students as boarders and adding entertainment by way of a gramophone. Many of his old customers still appear, but in vastly altered circumstances.
The final act takes place in 1948. The Japanese occupiers have left, but the Kuomintang, also under foreign influence, has again turned the tables on the teahouse's customers, many of them bynow the sons and daughters of those in Act I and some of whom want to tear down the teahouse and replace it with shops full of foreign goods.
If at one level "Teahouse" seems like a primer
on pre-Communist Chinese history, it is Lao She's development of his
characters over two generations that makes it exciting theater. A
stellar cast of about 30 give a brilliant master class in ensemble
acting, led by Liang Guanhua as Wang, Pu Cunxin as Master Chang and
Yang Lixin as Master Qin. This is the first visit to New York by the
Beijing People's Art Theater, and I hope it returns again soon.