The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin
San Francisco Playhouse
“America is lonely. Yes. Is hard. Is ugly. Is angry. Is scary. But maybe. Maybe not. Maybe not so much. Maybe home. Someday.”
In a country where nearly all the present population once immigrated from somewhere else, the United States has historically been plummeted with wave after wave of anti-immigrant sentiments, laws, and court decisions, unfortunately right up to the present day. Too often the above quote is even now the reaction of a person arriving on our shores, looking for a better, safer life. One of worst of all atrocities against immigrants dates from 1882 when all Chinese were prevented from migrating to the U.S., the only time all members of a specific ethnic or national group were legally kept out of this country. This was after Chinese men had been welcomed for a brief period after the Gold Rush as potential citizens and particularly, as ready, cheap labor for mine and railroad construction. Up until 1943, the only way a Chinese person could come to this country was to prove through a long, grueling, abusive process that one of those Gold Rush era immigrants was a relative, something that led to hopeful immigrants buying false identities and learning entirely new identifications, ‘paper names,’ that if caught as false, would lead to immediate deportation.
Jessica Huang gives voice to one Chinese man’s ‘paper name’ immigration and subsequent life in America in her time-and-reality swirling play, The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin, with his above quote expressing both the traumas and the hopes of what it is often like to leave behind everything once known and much loved only to face an America that is different from the dream. Under the incredibly sensitive, insightful, and wildly creative direction of Jeffrey Lo, San Francisco Playhouse opens an arresting, mind-boggling, and emotion-packed The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin that is eye-awakening, thought-provoking, and especially timely, given current anti-Asian and anti-immigrant currents sweeping across America.
By the 1970s, Harry Chin has been in the U.S. for over thirty years. With his heritage Chinese still somewhat evident in his speech, he is happiest when he is stirring a wok full of his origin country’s delicious goodness. But Harry is haunted – literally – by the ghosts of his past as he deals with the one-year anniversary of the tragic death of his wife, Laura. Sleeping on the couch of his twenty-four-year-old daughter, Sheila, Harry is stuck and reluctant to move on in his life. Memories flood in and out of his present reality – memories of a harrowing trip across the ocean, of months of immigrant detention and belligerent interrogation, of loved ones left behind and a loved one lost along the way. And then there are the secrets, the parts of his past life that he dared not share with those in his new life – secrets of kept obligations never revealed, secrets now unwilling to remain hidden any longer.
The present and the past spiral in Harry’s mind as they do in the eye-popping, constantly-in-motion production directed by Jeffrey Lo. Scenes of yesteryear and today blend and often play in parallel on a two-storied set of multiple rooms and staircases that spins amidst projections of American-flag stars, Chinese calligraphy, and dream-induced sprays of color. Christopher Fitzer’s scenic design and Teddy Hulsker’s projections combine with the many hues and effects of Kurt Landisman’s lighting to create a never-pausing array of the present colliding with the past as Harry both lives and remembers the legacies of his decision to leave one life to pursue another one. For us as audience, we see memories blend with present realities that are in turn confronted by intrusions spectral in nature, all illustrated through the combined skills of actors, director, and creative team.
Coming off an incredibly stellar performance as Quang in City Lights’ recent Vietgone, Jomar Tagatac is nothing short of spectacular as Harry Chin, displaying a wide range of emotional states that are genuine and gripping while graphically exposing the inner struggles Harry undergoes as he comes to terms with what and whom he has sacrificed for what and who he now has. Ghosts of his past visit him while memories interact with his present reality, memories that compete with present demands – a daughter who needs him to move into his own apartment or a boss who needs him not to burn the restaurant’s next order. Jomar Tagatac is at times a Harry stubborn as a rock barely acknowledging a wife, daughter, or boss with a grunt while staring off into space. At other times, he is fully animated, telling with eager alertness and full-body motion one of his favorite stories, like that of the Moon Goddess. When the ghosts of his past refuse to leave him alone, his Harry is hilarious as he uses everything from swallowed, paper Chinese charms to scattered Catholic holy water to try and vanish them from his presence. But when Harry confronts the litany of all he must forget in order to live his new life in a new continent – everything from mother to grandmother, from scenes of his hometown to the smells of his family kitchen – the flow of emotions pouring in tears from his shuddering body proves once again the star power of Jomar Tagatac.
Supporting Jomar Tagatac is a cast that to a person brings unique and memorable performances. Kina Kantor is daughter Sheila, who is seeking to connect to the Chinese part of her father’s heritage through learning calligraphy while still mourning and confronting her own ghostly memory of the American-born, blonde-haired mother she lost a year earlier. Doubts rise for her how much she was a gift versus a regret for both her mother and her father while at the same time she longs for a closure to secrets of her parents’ past that float around her – sometimes intriguing her and sometimes haunting her. Kina Kantor employs a wonderful combination of persistence, curiosity, vulnerability, and courage as her Sheila both shepherds and confronts the memory of her lost mother and the needs and secrets of her father.
Carrie Paff initially brightens up the stage with the sparkling spirit and a taunting smile of Laura as we witness in Harry’s memory when she first lets her future husband know how much she loves both his cooking and him. Even as Harry and Sheila mourn her one-year-ago sudden death, Laura continues to interact with their lives, with each encounter by her memory or her ghost being an opportunity for Carrie Paff to surprise them and us with her totally alive presence and passion. But her Sheila brings a lingering trail of hurt and pent-up anger of secrets Harry has not shared with her – something her continued presence is seeking to confront and resolve. As she works through these issues via Harry’s memory, Carrie Paff creates a spirit exceedingly real and compelling, one that refuses to leave until Harry acknowledges the hurt he once caused through the tightly-kept unspoken parts of his life.
Yuet too refuses to disappear from Harry’s reality even though she is the young wife he was forced to leave behind when he set out for America many years before. Sharon Shao’s sudden and haunting appearances are full of the emotion of loss and confusion while there is also full evidence in her eyes and her demeanor of the love she never lost for the husband never again seen. That love and his memory of it becomes the steadying anchor that sustains Harry through his grueling interrogations as Yuet mystically whispers to Harry the answers he struggles to remember from his falsely acquired identification. Later, Sharon Shao beautifully transforms into Susan, the offspring of that long-ago marriage, as the daughter respectfully but determinedly seeks her parental roots in America.
Along with playing the kind but strict restaurant Boss of Harry, Michael Torres has a larger-than-life presence as a monstrous Interrogator, uniformed with medals and with a face in the form of a distorted American flag (just one small part of the wonderful assortment of real and other-worldly costumes designed by Becky Bodurtha). His echoing, animal-like growls spit out unintelligible questions that the mystical, loving Yuet interprets for the terrified Harry. The horror of the situation is enhanced as one part of Howard Ho’s sound design whose many dimensions help us separate and understand the puzzlements of a script that operates simultaneously on so many dimensions – real-time, memory-based, dreams, and ghosts.
Also ably taking on two very different roles is Will Dao, first as the loyal companion of Harry on the voyage across the sea, Poet, whose nervous fear of the inquisitions to come provide moments of both humor and dread between the friends as Harry helps the Poet practice the ‘facts’ of his new identity. Later, Will Dao convincingly switches to be an Immigration Officer of the Chinese Confirmation Program, whose mission is to find out what is true and not true about the names and the lives of the citizen-petitioning Harry.
Jessica Huang’s The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin is one man’s long journey to American citizenship – one where he leaves behind his given name and his former life and family as he sacrifices much to start a new life and a new family. While his story is in this case specific to him, Jessica Huang has written a script that applies to many thousands of others who have hidden much of who they once were in order to assimilate into their new, strange culture and customs. San Francisco Playhouse’s all-engrossing, sensory-packed, emotionally moving production breaks many boundaries of time, space, and reality but clearly projects an immigrant experience that will remain seared in the memories of all who are lucky enough to attend.
Rating: 5 E
A Theatre Eddy’s Best Bet Production
The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin will continue through June 18, 2022 in production by San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available at http://sfplayhouse.org or by phone at 415-677-9596.
Photos by Jessica Palopoli