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Issei, He Say, or The Myth of the First
Mr. Yamamoto was the first Japanese man I had ever met. Well...that's not saying much because everyone in Canada was the first of whatever they were that I had ever met. Down on College Street were all the Italians, my cousins told me on the Danforth was where all the Greek people lived, and the Jewish people lived up Bathurst. — Lucy

Issei, He Say
Stan Egi and Kathleen Swan (photo credit: SuzAnne Barabas)
Living the American dream in Scarborough (Toronto) Canada can be a challenge if not a nightmare, as it becomes for a Chinese family newly arrived from Hong Kong with the hopes of settling down comfortably in a working class neighborhood in 1969. As confidently directed by Lisa James, this heart-felt, if also problematic, fictional memory play by Chloeá Hung chronicles the unhappy experiences of the Chu family in an unwelcoming community. As if it isn't enough for Mr. Chu (Fenton Li) and his wife (Kathleen Kwan) to feel alienated when the small convenience store they run is vandalized, their 12 year-old daughter Lucy (Christina Liang) is made miserable every day at the public school she attends by racial taunts and bullying from the other girls.

An even more unexpected issue involves their next door neighbor Mr. Yamamoto (Stan Egi) who is Japanese and unwittingly brings back horrific memories of World War II to Mr. and Mrs. Chu. Mr. Chu is reluctant to let the past go and makes no attempt to be neighborly. On the other hand, Mr. Yamamoto, who earns his living as a gardener, is a first generation Japanese. He lived and worked as a fisherman in Vancouver until his wife and child chose to be repatriated and return to Japan. Alone, but willing to be a good neighbor ("Good day, neighbor") gets only a chilly nod from Mr. Chu on his way to work. He makes it clear that he holds Mr. Yamamoto personally responsible for the atrocities committed to members of his family by the Japanese.

Only Lucy, who likes to visit Mr. Yamamoto in his garden and Mrs. Chu who is willing to consider a truce create a bridge toward reconciliation. He empathizes with Lucy by small gestures while also trying to make her understand the difficulties of being Issei or first generation. He understands Mrs. Chu's difficulty being excluded by the Canadian ladies she meets who mock her attempts to pronounce certain words. In a lovely/funny scene Mrs. Chu practices Elvis Presley's "Hound Dog" moving in rhythm.

It isn't often that we get a play about Asian immigration and especially with Canada as a locale and playwright Hung makes no concessions on how difficult it is for people to start fresh and leave their emotional baggage. An up and coming playwright to watch, Chinese-American Hung lets us see how the lingering and bitter memories harbored by Lucy's parents and those of Mr. Yamamoto who has been sadly estranged from his family for an entire generation, contribute to their testy relationship.

A tumultuous confrontation between Mr. and Mrs. Chu and Mr. Yamamoto raises the play's emotional bar even above the anger that mostly propels the play. Stan Egi is excellent as the good-intentioned Japanese gardener who hopes to break down the wall of hostility that his neighbor has built. Although patriarchal in the extreme, Fenton Li nicely shades Mr. Chu's resistance to peaceful co-existence. Kathleen Kwan brings a disarming quality to Mrs. Chu, a talented woman ready and willing to start a new career.

Christina Lang is lovely as the young Lucy and also keeps a warmly intoned narrative flowing between 1969 and 1990 as her older self. Designer Jessica Park's setting that conjoins the two homes and features Yamamoto's beautiful, if small, flower garden, serves a play that makes a credible argument for racial empathy over societal apathy.

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Issei, He Say, or The Myth of the First by Chloeá Hung

Scenic Design: Jessica Parks
Lighting Design: Jill Nagle
Sound Design: Merek Royce Press
Costume Design: Patricia E. Doherty
Stage Manager: Rebecca Kestel
Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes including intermission
New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, N.J.
(732) 229 - 3166 or
Tickets: $46.00
Performances: Thursdays and Fridays at 8 pm; Saturdays at 3 and 8 pm; Sundays at 2 pm.
From 04/19/18 Opened 04/27/18 Ends 05/20/18
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 04/29/18

NJ Theaters
NJ Theatre Alliance
Discount Tix Information

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