CHING CHONG CHINAMAN by Lauren Yee (fu-GEN). At the Aki Studio Theatre, Daniels Spectrum (585 Dundas East). Runs to March 30, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday-Sunday 2 pm. $15-$28, Sunday pwyc. 1-800-204-0855, fu-gen.org. See listing. Rating: NNNN
You won't find a more politically incorrect show than Lauren Yee's Ching Chong Chinaman.
And that's a good thing. Taking a hammer to racism and stereotypes, the play is full of broad, sometimes sharp laughs.
Its central figures are the Wong family, living in California: father Ed (John Ng), mother Grace (Brenda Kamino) and their children, Desdemona (Zoe Doyle) and Upton (Oliver Koomsatira). Americans for several generations, they've totally assimilated and barely think of themselves as Chinese.
Businessman Ed wants his family to be happy, while Grace appears at a loss as to how to define herself except by having another child. Overachiever Desdemona is determined to go to Princeton at any cost; Upton's goal is winning the World of Warfare competition in South Korea.
Enter Jingqiang (Richard Lee), a Chinese man brought into the household to help Upton achieve his dreams. The parents can't pronounce his name - all they can manage is "Ching Chong" - and Desdemona thinks it polite to ignore him. All, of course, condescend in their own way to J, as they start calling him, though he seemingly doesn't speak English.
Filled with stereotyped attitudes and characters, Yee's play tackles the prejudices we all have to some degree. She uses comedy to puncture self-importance and the us-versus-them philosophy that fuels racism.
Director Nina Lee Aquino's production, cleverly staged, is filled with large comic figures nicely filled out by the cast. Ng's paterfamilias is a smiling but sombre sort, calling his wife "boss" but giving her no freedom to make decisions. Doyle captures the frenzy that drives the A-type Desdemona, and Koomsatira shows us Upton's gradual disillusionment with his gaming life.
Kamino is especially good at tracing Grace's journey from unfocused wife and mother to determined, self-defined woman who dances to her own beat. It's J who unexpectedly helps her find her path, and the scenes between Kamino and Lee bubble with energy and fun.
The performers understand how to milk the script's comedy, but there's no one more expert at getting laughs than Jane Luk, playing a variety of women, among them the Korean child that Desdemona sponsors, a woman from the Joy Luck Club and Upton's online gamer-girlfriend. Luk's finely tuned comic skills guarantee that her every scene is a treat.
Camellia Koo's set, also a winner, uses cardboard boxes - often with a "Made in China" sticker - and plastic-wrapped props to good effect. Michelle Ramsay's lights and Christopher Stanton's sound design, filled with pop tunes, give further energy to an up-tempo production.
But don't just expect laughs, for Aquino and company inject a poignancy into the play near the end, a striking tonal change for a show that deals mostly with send-ups.