CHING CHONG CHINAMAN by Lauren Yee, directed by Nina Lee Aquino, with Zoe Doyle, Brenda Kamino, Oliver Koomsatira, Richard Lee, Jane Luk and John Ng. Presented by fu-GEN Theatre at the Aki Studio Theatre (585 Dundas East). Previews March 13, opens March 14 and runs to March 30, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday-Sunday 2 pm. $15-$28, Sunday pwyc. 1-800-204-0855.
Brenda Kamino's been a stage and screen actor for decades, but she's never tackled a script quite like American playwright Lauren Yee's Ching Chong Chinaman.
"My politically correct white friends would have trouble saying the title out loud, but that's part of the fun of the show. In emphasizing Asian stereotypes, Yee breaks them down and gets rid of their sting."
The play focuses on the Wongs, a Chinese American family - it could as easily be Chinese Canadian - who don't see themselves as Asian at all. Father Ed is a businessman who wants to make his family happy and mother Grace hopes for another baby. Daughter Desdemona is an overachiever who aims to attend Princeton, while son Upton dreams of winning an international World of Warcraft competition in Korea.
Things become more complicated when Upton brings a Chinese man into the household to help the teen achieve his goal. The newcomer is the title figure, whose name is really Jinqiang, but mispronounced Ching Chong by everyone in the family; he's conveniently called "J" for short.
"The cast is blend of Asian ethnicities, and when we first read the script around the table we were breathless from laughing. We all understand what it's like to be misunderstood and slotted into categories simply by our appearance."
The Wongs are so entrenched in American culture that any Chinese cultural tradition is strange to them; they unwittingly embrace every possible racial slur. When Grace phones in an order for Chinese takeout, for instance, she raises her voice to be sure that the non-English- speaking person at the restaurant understands her.
"These four don't see themselves as Chinese at all. It's typical of many of us who've lived for generations in the States or Canada. We all carry around strong prejudices about other cultures. Here we get to laugh at the preconceptions this family has about everyone around them without realizing that they themselves are stereotypes."
Kamino's character, Grace, is a woman who at the play's start has no skills; worse, no one in the family listens to her.
"Her journey is to find a way to be important and needed. She has to discover a fulfilling life; the others are happy with their lot, but she's not, for her imagination and creativity have been stifled by family concerns, projects and events.
"She finds an ally in J, the stranger in her house. Like her, he's alone, has ambitions and isn't allowed to pursue them. By the end of the play, she gets what she wants by finding the elements missing in her life and still holding on to her dream."
Ching Chong Chinaman is a fitting show for the 10th anniversary of fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre. For the past decade, it's been highlighting the work of Asian artists who previously had little exposure on mainstream stages.
Kamino shares the company's goals, though this is the first full production she's done for them. Beginning with an Actors' Equity non-traditional symposium in 1989, Kamino worked with powerhouses like Sandi Ross to change how theatres look at the shows they program and the people they employ. Just as important to the process is how artists themselves see their talents and the accessibility available to them.
"Fu-GEN was founded by a young, dynamic group of people who've encouraged amazing talent from theatre creators," says Kamino admiringly. "Other companies, like Cahoots and Obsidian, are also nurturing ethnic artists, but the mainstream theatre still hasn't taken these people into their community as much as they should."
Politics aside for the moment, Kamino is focused on getting the show ready for opening. And, along the way, laughing a lot.
"It's filled with farce, with cultural references as juxtaposition to the action; part of the comedy comes from the blur between reality and fantasy, a sophisticated way of addressing the oddness of the script. Even the set makes comments about stereotypes.
"And while some people might be offended by some of the elements, what's important is that we're the ones calling the laughs and deciding what the audience will find funny."