BY MARGARET LAWRENCE, Hop Programming Director
Following a triumphant opening run Off-Broadway, Wakka Wakka Production’s musical Made In China—which combines brilliant puppetry, hilarious songs and pointed geopolitical commentary—comes to the Hop Friday and Saturday, March 31 and April 1, 8 pm, in The Moore Theater. It is recommended for age 16 and up due to adult language and puppet nudity.
Inspired by true events, Made In China is a fantastical exploration of human rights, consumerism and morality as told through the unlikely love story between Mary, a lonely middle-aged American woman, and Eddie, her Chinese ex-pat neighbor. Assuaging her emptiness with junk food-eating, internet-watching and big-box-store buying sprees, Mary opens a box of Christmas lights to find a note from a worker in a Chinese forced-labor camp—which leads her on a surreal, globe-spanning voyage of discovery.
Made In China features over 20 puppets (manipulated by seven skilled performers, hidden in black clothes and veils), music inspired by both American and Chinese traditions, and animated video. Baby pandas, dancing appliances, fire-belching dragons and romping middle-aged lovers populate Made In China’s universe of tiny-to-huge puppets, belting out original songs composed by Chinese-Canadian composer Yan Li.
The company worked on the piece during a developmental residency at the Hop in March 2015, during which they met with a group of Dartmouth Chinese international students who were staying on campus during term break.
It’s pretty unusual for a theater troupe to dare to satirize US-China relations, let alone create puppets representing Chinese and Chinese-American culture! So we interviewed two key artistic collaborators about their contributions:
Yan Li, Composer: Yan is a composer, lyricist and music director. He was born in China and spent his childhood among the movie lots of Beijing Film Studio. Pre-puberty, he moved to the Canada. Yan received his BA in music composition and theory from the University of Victoria, then was awarded a Tisch Fellowship and received his MFA in musical theater writing from New York University. Now based in New York City, Yan’s work has been performed at Barrington Stage, 59E59, the O’Neill Center, the Chautauqua Institution, Signature Theatre, NYMF, 54 Below, West End Theatre, Goodspeed, Irondale Center, the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, the Duplex, Pearl Theatre, New York SongSpace, Symphony Space and the Toronto Fringe Festival. With collaborators, he has been commissioned by Pacific Opera Victoria, Acting Up Stage, Prospect Theater Company, Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre, Wakka Wakka Productions, and Leviathan Lab, among others. Yan is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild of America, the Asian American Librettists, Composers, and Lyricists Project, and a Founding Artist of Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre.
Charles Pang, Actor: A “meek and mild” (his words) actor from Hong Kong, Pang is an American Musical and Dramatic Academy alumnus whose credits in addition to Made In China include A Christmas Story (Waiter, 2014-15 Broadway National Tour), Anything Goes (John, Phoenix Theatre), The King and I (Puppeteer, Maltz Jupiter Theatre), The Story of Yu-Huan (The Prince, Theater for the New City), Richard III (Young Prince Edward, Gallery Players), and Hamlet (Guildenstern/Priest, Allentown Shakespeare in the Park).
MARGARET LAWRENCE: Did you have input into any of the characters? What about the songs and their lyrics? What was the process with the various artistic collaborators?
YAN LI: One song, performed when Eddie is in his bathrobe thinking about his daughter, was written as an exercise to figure out how to write for Eddie specifically; an entryway into his psyche for further songs. But the song was kept and informed the narrative. Wakka Wakka adopted it.
When thinking about Eddie, I wanted him to be more than a two-dimensional Asian character—those choices are usually either a wispy, philosophical “Oriental cipher,” or some kind of alien! I felt he should have gumption, and even be able to have some sass. He has strong opinions. He’s a person with dimensions. Some of them are actually drawn from my Dad, others from me. And certain of his uses of the English language—the words he uses well, others that he doesn’t—I felt to be in line with a character who’d lived in the US as long as Eddie has. I mean, I didn’t create a Power Point analyzing him, I used half analysis, half intuition in creating him.
One great thing about the creative process: Gwen and Kirjan (Artistic Directors of Wakka Wakka) constantly deferred to the Chinese-American cast, asking about various elements, “is this valid? Is it right?” If anyone felt there was anything problematic, they cut it.
CHARLES PANG: I play a number of characters and had input into all of them. They include the toilet plunger; this character’s energetic character seemed to come naturally—and the puppet that cast member Dorothy James made informs me how to play it, and the music and lyrics of the titular number Made In China, which the plunger sings, also informs me about its character. I’m also the voice of the letter. It’s a voice imitating Chinese opera style—it actually was developed by a previous actor who played that role—I stepped in later. To prepare, I watched videos of famous Peking Opera singer, Mei Lanfang, and other performers.
I play Chairman Mao—and to do that I watched a documentary to see how he speaks. Another character I play is the ghost of Eddie’s brother; I really contributed to how he looks. He’s covered with origami moths that I and cast member Lei Lei Bavoil made from Chinese funeral money. I was inspired by a powerful manga image, then presented that idea to Waka Wakka directors Gwen and Kirjan.
Finally, there is a scene involving small puppets that are riding bicycles in Beijing. I contributed the idea for those—they were modelled after funeral dolls that are burned for a person who passed away recently. In fact, they were sculpted by cast member Andy Manjuck and their bodies were made by Lei Lei—and there may have been even more people involved in creating them, even though they only make a 15-second appearance in the show. This exemplifies how collaborative the process has been, how tightly we worked together, and how dedicated we are to the show.
ML: On a spectrum of “absolutely correct” to “pants on fire,” where do you feel the show’s various Asian portrayals fall?
YL: All the Chinese or Chinese-American characters are grounded in some sort of reality, even if they’re cartoon-ish. The modern face of China, as you see in the beginning, is all about extreme polish, extreme positivity, extreme modernity. And I think that is indeed the way China portrays itself to outsiders. So yes, to me, every puppet in this play has a link to an actual Chinese persona.
CP: I do wonder about the dragon at the end—Eddie and Mary are attacked by it. But in Chinese culture a dragon is usually a figure of royalty, or sovereignty. It has heavenly authority. An attacking dragon is definitely dramatically effective but maybe I haven’t found the essential meaning of this yet.
ML: Are any of the characters recognizable to you? Which ones and why?
CP: For sure. There’s a scene involving an American character, Dick Mills, and Madame Millions. Mary, the protagonist, asks about labor camps and human rights, and Dick and Madame turn sour and verbally attack her. That’s based on an interview in which a Chinese government official attacked a reporter—it’s literally taken from it. For more mainland well-to-do Chinese, economic growth in China is so fast and has improved so many citizens’ lives, but of course there are situations that are being overlooked in China. On the other hand, sometimes people—foreigners—are using minor situations to undermine the success of China. “So many people’s lives are improved—why are you taking up these few people?” Those two characters, Dick and Madame, represent that point of view. It’s true things have improved since the ‘70s but we can’t overlook the other problems.
Then there are the differences between Mary and Eddie. In one scene, they argue because Eddie thinks she is too self-pitying. It’s a Western thing to dwell on your sorrows. She retorts that he is a Chinese man who stuffs his feelings down—and yes, I believe that suppression is quite inherent in Chinese culture. I suppress my own feelings—I’m not emotionally open! I think perhaps Americans tend to be more open in terms of sharing feelings and thoughts.
YL: One moment in “Made in China” that seems dead-on to me is when Mary keeps pronouncing Eddie’s last name as “Wang” instead of “Wong.” That is SO familiar! It’s a small moment which says even more about how people from different cultures approach each other than the big moments. Until I was an undergrad, I just told people to call me “Li,” because they had so much trouble with “Yan;” they would screw up their face trying to say it! I think a lot of Chinese-Americans can relate. I actually answer to five different names!
ML: In the New York City Off-Broadway run, have you been aware of how Asian-American audience members have experienced the play?
CP: Yeah, some of my Chinese American friends have seen it—they’ve mostly enjoyed it. I was concerned about how they’d perceive the China we portray in the show because it’s mostly satirical—so the things we reveal may not all complimentary—I mean, in the song Innovation, the composer put the Chinese national anthem in there! And the idea of the characters going through a toilet bowl as a portal to China! But it turns out they’re fine with it. A friend came from Hong Kong and she thought this show should tour to Hong Kong! Although, I guess if a Chinese government official came it would be an interesting conversation….
YL: Most of the feedback we’ve received from Asian-American audience members has been positive. I mean, it’s a satire, so we never intended for it to be a fair and balanced show. We dig pretty hard into issues of censorship and human rights in China. Perhaps if we had more time to spend onstage we could get even more into an equal amount of hypocrisy on the US side, too. I did hear that one patron left in the middle of show—they said they didn’t pay good money to see anti-China propaganda. However, I don’t even know if that person was Asian/Asian-American!
ML: Anything else to add?
YL: It’s interesting to have written a satire about China. Chinese art has, for centuries, relied on satire to go after authority—mainly through language and stagecraft. Even now, underground art in Beijing—even including that of Ai Wei Wei—doesn’t directly criticize the government. It’s always done through parable or folklore. If you know the stories or the animals, you get the message.