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A CurtainUp Review
Charles Francis Chan Jr.'s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery
By Charles Wright
The play, which NAATCO commissioned, is a difficult work to categorize. It's an effervescent entertainment that weaves together multiple narrative lines. Under the high velocity direction of Ed Sylvanus Iskandar, it has the verve of improv, the imaginative variety of sketch comedy, and the ideological passion of agitprop.
Set primarily in 1967, Suh's script explores the status of Asian men and women in North America from the Gold Rush to the present. Like Sybil Kempson's Fondly, Collette Richland at New York Theatre Workshop, the Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery is filled with multifarious cultural and historical references, including appearances by characters from the Ming Dynasty novel Journey to the West, Earl Derr Biggers' Charlie Chan stories and movies inspired by them, and Agatha Christie's Mysterious Affair at Styles.
The play's title character (Jeffrey Omura), who is adamant that he's "Frank" and not "Charlie" exclaims "I reject the present idiomatic parlance . . .I reject Sino-American Jap Good Chink Chop Suey!"
Frank has just flunked out of college and is struggling with identity issues. His peers at the University of California, Berkeley, regard him as "exotic" and "oriental," though he's an Oakland-born American. Having lost his military deferment along with his student status, Frank is vulnerable to the draft and deployment to Vietnam, where he would be a man with Asian features fighting a war against a Southeast Asian political entity in a military force overwhelmingly "occidental." To the surprise of all around him, Frank proclaims himself an "Asian American" (a designation his friends have never before encountered) and sets out to write a play in defense of this new ethnic designation.
Suh tells Frank's story in sequences that alternate with scenes from Frank's dramatic manifesto, glimpses of what goes on backstage when that play is being produced, and images of cultural stereotypes from various parts of American history. Iskandar and his design colleagues ensure that the action moves swiftly and smoothly from location to location and from one era to another. With Olivia Sebesky's colorful projections popping up on screens and scrims and other surfaces around Jason Sherwood's flexible stage set, Walker Space, a tiny Soho theater, becomes a cartoon world filled with surprises.
As usual in NAATCO productions, the Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery features a first-rate cast. Jeff Biehl, Jennifer Ikeda, Peter Kim, Orville Mendoza, K.K. Moggie (along with the previously mentioned Mr. Omura) do double and triple duty, conjuring a varied array of characters. Noteworthy is an oddly solemn, somewhat unnerving, monologue in which a Caucasian actor is onstage and also magnified as a projection on a scrim as he applies so-called "yellow-face" make-up to play an Asian character, invoking past times when actors such as Roland Winters and Sir Peter Ustinov portrayed Charlie Chan. (Later, an Asian American actress applies "white face" in a similar but contrasting scene.)
Charles Francis Chan, Jr.'s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery may reasonably be compared to a graphic novel. For all its cartoonish aspects, Suh's writing is serious of purpose throughout. The play evokes plenty of laughter with its portrayal of ignorance and bigotry but, ultimately, in this mystery, it's the age-old stereotypes that are put to death and given the burial they deserve.