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A CurtainUp Review
Charles Francis Chan Jr.'s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery
By Charles Wright
The purpose of stereotypes is to maintain order. The dominant culture assigns a system of behaviors to a group of people with the expectation that this model will become an actual pattern within the culture being stereotyped, and it works!
— Charles Francis Chan, Jr., known as Frank, explaining existence to a bored customs inspector
naatco play
Jeffrey Omura and Jennifer Ikeda
Last summer, in its engrossing revival of Clifford Odets' Awake and Sing, NAATCO (National Asian American Theatre Company) offered a poignant view of the emotional and economic struggles of a Jewish family in the Bronx during the Great Depression. Now NAATCO is starting its 25th anniversary season with Charles Francis Chan Jr.'s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery, a new play by Lloyd Suh that is a radical contrast to Odets' lyrical realism.

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Richland at New York Theatre Workshop, the Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery is filled with multifarious cultural and historical references, including appearances by characters from the Ming Dynasty novel Journey to the West, Earl Derr Biggers' Charlie Chan stories and movies inspired by them, and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.

Charles Francis Chan Jr.'s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery by Lloyd Suh
Director: Ed Sylvanus Iskandar
Cast: Jeff Biehl, Jennifer Ikeda, Peter Kim, Orville Mendoza, K.K. Moggie, and Jeffrey Omura
Scenic Design: Jason Sherwood
Costume Design: Loren Shaw
Lighting Design: Seth Reiser
Sound Design: Jeremy S. Bloom
Projection Design: Olivia Sebesky
Composer & Musical Director: Alan Schmuckler
Dramaturg: Kimber Lee
Stage Manager: Andrea Jess Berkey
Assistant Stage Manager: Jessica Edwards
Fight Choreographer: Qui Nguyen
Props Supervisor: Samantha Shoffner
Mandarin Coach: William Yuekun Wu
Running Time: Two hours with one intermission
Presented by NAATCO (National Asian American Theatre Company, Inc.), Mia Katigbak, Artistic Producing Director; Peter Kim, Associate Producer)
Walker Space, 46 Walker Street
From 10/26/15; opened 11/02/15; closes 11/21/15/
Reviewed by Charles Wright at an October 29th press performance
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