BD Wong Back Home (and On Stage) in SF
Almost three hundreds years ago, the Chinese play "The Orphan of Zhao" was translated into French, making it the first Chinese play in history to be introduced to the western world. By the mid 1700s, adaptations in French, English and Italian were staged at a time when the appreciation of the Chinese culture hit a high note in Europe. Perhaps the drama of this revenge tale resonated with the western audience. The play has since incarnated into various versions in different mediums with the most recent film version, helmed by Chen Kaige ("Farewell, My Concubine") in 2010. Cut to 2014, the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco picks this story to close out its gratifyingly kaleidoscopic season.
"The Orphan of Zhao" is pulled from a chapter about the Zhao family in the "Records of the Grand Historian" written by the Han Dynasty historian Sima Qian. In the story, two court officials of the Jin state were rivals. One of them, General Tu’an Gu, had such hatred for Minister Zhao Dun, that he framed Zhao and slaughtered three hundred members of his family. The last surviving member of the Zhao family was a newborn to whom the mother entrusted its care to her physician Cheng Ying before taking her own life. The existence of this infant was known to General Tu’an Gu who then threatened to kill every toddler in the state if they could not find this sole living member of the Zhao family. In an act to prevent a massacre, Cheng Ying sacrificed his own newborn, claiming that his child was the one for whom the enemies searched. Twenty years on, this "Orphan of Zhao" would grow up, learn about the tragedy and seek revenge.
"It’s about the different relationships with all these different kinds of people," says Carey Perloff, Artistic Director of A.C.T., when asked about the relevance of the play today. "What happens when an ordinary person is asked to make a sacrifice for the common good. It’s a very complicated question. There’s a great cynicism about that because there’s no trust that if you make a sacrifice for the government, it’s going to serve you. We used to be a country, in America, where democracy was about the common good. I think we’ve lost a lot of that since. So the play asks that question, at what moment is it worth sacrificing something deeply personal to you in order to save something for the broader community, and that’s something we need to wrestle with now in our democracy."
Playing the central role of the physician Cheng Ying is San Francisco’s own BD Wong, openly gay actor who has won acclaim in his works in Broadway, movies and television, most notably for winning a Tony Award for his Broadway debut in "M. Butterfly" opposite John Lithgow. Now in his early fifties and a single father, the theme of sacrifice is one which Wong can identify with. EDGE chats with Wong ahead of the A.C.T. opening of "The Orphan of Zhao."
A doctor’s dilemma
EDGE: Let’s talk about the role that you play.
BD Wong: The doctor of the play is a very ordinary man. He’s thrust into an extraordinary situation, kind of a puzzle of a decision that he needs to make in his life, but it’s very difficult involving sacrificing of his own child. I think for me, the most prominent thing about him is that he is very ordinary. He’s not a person with great ambition. He’s a person who is perfectly happy with his brand new child and the village he lives in. He tends to the sick. He goes to the countryside. He collects herbs and roots. He is just a simply country doctor. He’s summoned by the palace into this situation where he is delivering the princess’ baby and then he’s begged by the princess to save the baby from harm, something he never asked for, he never wanted it. Then all of a sudden, he entrusted into the middle of the drama of the play, which is what to do at that point, about choosing your own comfort or the life and the livelihood, dignity and the honor of hundreds of other people. This family that has been massacred, whether he wants to take on the responsibility of helping that family get the honor back or whether he doesn’t.
EDGE: What does the story mean to you?
BD Wong: The character and the play mean to me something very personal when it comes to parenthood, and the emotions of the character, are very resonant to me. I guess as a parent, I’m not sure if I can describe what it is, but my initial response to the material is emotional and comes from trying to relate to the predicament that the doctor is in. I feel for him tremendously and I think that helps me as an entry point to begin to learn how to play the part.
Aside from that, it’s very meaningful for me to be in this production because I grew up in San Francisco and I’ve always admired American Conservatory Theater even as a student. I went to A.C.T. and created a lot of my enthusiasm for wanting to become an actor. So performing on that stage and performing in my hometown, it’s also very meaningful. So there are a lot of things that really resonate with me for this.
EDGE: How did you tap into your own life experience going into playing this role?
BD Wong: When you play all parts, the ’tapping into it’ happens naturally. Your emotional experience in your life and the vocabulary of emotions that you build as you get older in your life are just there. The ’tapping into it,’ as you mentioned, comes from the understanding that your character is in a similar situation that you have been in before and making that co-relation, but it happens naturally. If you understand what the character that you’re playing actually is going through. Just so happens that in this particular play and particular role, I feel that understanding. What happens is that once you have a child, and you read a play like this one, you immediately think to yourself: what if it was me? How would I feel if that was me. Then you picture your child’s face when you picture the person looking at the own child, the feelings of emotions or love or all of the different feelings that you might have come very naturally because the parent-child bond, you don’t even have to work on it, it just happens naturally in your life, that you love and want to protect and with the inclination to sacrifice your child is one that you would avoid at all cost. That comes naturally.
EDGE: What do you hope the audience will experience in this play?
BD Wong: The play and the background of the play are very Chinese. The production of the play is bringing Chinese elements to its identity and presentation. There is a framework of China in the play, but the emotions of the play are not Chinese at all. They are simply human. They are emotions that are easily identifiable, even if the circumstances of the play are absolutely extraordinary and apparently very Chinese. It’s something that could never take place anywhere else, but really, if you think about the feelings of all the characters are feelings, in relation to this extraordinary circumstances, those are just human, therefore immediately identifiable to all people.
I embrace the potential of Asian American and Chinese American audiences appreciating the western theatre more. As an Asian American performer, it’s important to me to be appreciated by my own people. That’s not something that comes out naturally to the Asian American audience always. I appreciate A.C.T. choosing this play reaching out to the community, cultivating the audience.
EDGE: Share with us about your experience of making it as an actor in theater and film as an Asian gay man.
BD Wong: The thing that has taken me the longest to learn in my life as an actor is a very fundamental thing which is understanding yourself. When you are in acting class as a young student learning how to act, you’ll hear a lot of talk about how to understand whom you are and to embrace whom you are first and foremost. That’s how you learn to play other characters, by understanding the core of who you are. This is not actually as easy to do for some people, myself included, as you think it is. That understanding to me, includes the true understanding of what it means to be Asian American. There are two things that come together in me that are identifying that are very strong things within my identity.
Being a gay person, is another thing that plays a huge role in my understanding and the way I view life, the lens through which I look at life. It was only when I could understand those things and love those things that I could make positive energy out of those things and that I could imbue them, sometimes in the characters that I play. Sometimes not, it depends when it’s useful, when it’s not useful, but those things speak to the notion of knowing oneself.
One of the things that I want younger people to understand is how that journey of knowing oneself, it happens naturally. You can’t force it. It’s something to look for. It’s something to strive to attain. The other thing I think is important, is that you choose the life of an artist because you choose it, and it chooses you in a certain way. You know when it’s right for you. You know when it’s something that cannot be denied within you and you must try to follow it if you can. For Asian Americans, it’s not always easy, because our relationships with our parents are so strong and because their understanding, particularly with immigrant parents of what it means to be an American success does not include being an artist, and so that is a challenging thing that I’ve learned over the years. That’s something that cannot be taken lightly if you want to become an artist.
EDGE: How did you overcome these challenges to your path of becoming an artist?
BD Wong: I think I was lucky in that my parents were ultimately open people. At first they were rather traditionally minded and harbored all of the same fear that Asian parents often have. They strongly wish for me to have a more secure vocation that I chose and that I would act on the side, or because I would satisfy the craving to act but not professionally. Over the years, it became clear to them and to me as well that it was important for me to make an attempt to become a professional actor. I had a very strong feeling and desire to do it and I had a strong inclination that it was worth it to try to do it because I have strong reinforcements from teachers and audiences, and when I weighed those things, they were able to weigh with me the pros and cons and to give me a kind of blessing to try that. I was lucky I had that.
"The Orphan of Zhao" runs at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco from June 4 to 29.