Orphan à la Crouching Tiger

Daphne Lei

On a typical lovely July afternoon in Southern California, I arrived at La Jolla Playhouse with great anticipation. I was here to see The Orphan of Zhao, a brand new production mounted by the American Conservatory Theatre (ACT), which had premiered in San Francisco in June 2014. The same production travelled about 500 miles south to La Jolla, an affluent community just north of San Diego.  I prepared myself with critical eyes and a sharp tongue for my double duty today: to examine this new production (a co-production of ACT and La Jolla Playhouse) and to give an educational lecture on traditional Chinese theatre and opera.1

I was encouraged to focus my talk on the background information of Chinese theatre and to steer away from the casting issues caused by the UK production mounted by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in 2012-13; however, the so-called ‘two dogs and a maid’ controversy of the RSC was definitely on my mind today, and probably was in many people’s thoughts when the California Orphan was being materialized. California, with its large Asian population and great resources of Asian American theatres and actors, should be much more sensitive about casting a ‘Chinese’ play.  Mishaps do happen, however, and La Jolla Playhouse itself was severely criticized for the largely Caucasian casting of its 2012 production of The Nightingale, a story set in ancient China. On the other hand, the strong post-racial and multicultural rhetoric in California makes good excuse for multiracial or colour-blind casting, as some members of Nightingale have argued.2  In my mind, the California issue is much more subtle but complicated. Authenticity is no longer a colour-matching game (the actor’s colour matches the role’s colour); it is about interrogating the space between the intended ethnic representation and the actual ethnic presentation, something I call the ‘Oriental ethnic drag’.3  The ACT-La Jolla Playhouse co-production of the Orphan of Zhao (hereafter, the California Orphan) makes use of  ‘intra-Asian casting’, which means a Filipino actor might be cast for a Chinese role but a Caucasian actor cannot, because ‘Asian’ here is broadly conceptualized based on the East/West divide.  Intra-Asian casting is a common practice for Asian American theatre and is usually considered politically correct and visually convincing.  On the surface, the twelve-member cast of the California Orphan, almost all Asian (East Asian and Southeast Asian actors with only one Caucasian actor), needs not sound the ethnic alarm; however, a deeper racial and cultural issue manifests itself in the staging of the California Orphan, which I propose to uncover here.4

The actors’ ethnic proximity under the intra-Asian casting rule might present an effect of ‘almost the same, but not quite’, to borrow Homi Bhabha’s famous description of colonialist mimicry.5 The visible distance between the intended ethnic representation and the actual presentation in California Orphan is not created by colour, but by an unspoken rule about ethnic acting in the U.S.  This rule decrees that, while ethnic casting is generally applied (in an intra-Asian or intra-Latin American manner), additional ethnic gimmicks have to be adopted to ensure the authenticity for the general American audiences. It is the additional ethnic clichés that widen the space between the representation and presentation and makes the ethnic acting much more drag-like. For me, ‘drag’ stands for a simultaneous performance of the exaggerated mimicry and the frank presentation of the original, such as the performance of an over-feminized drag queen.  It is often the co-existence of ‘almost the same’ and ‘not quite’ that creates a comical or fantastical effect in a drag performance.  The dead serious Orphan is not meant to be ludicrously comical; nevertheless, I will argue that the gap between the intended ethnic representation (the imagined ancient Chineseness) and the actual ethnic presentation (Westernized Asian bodies with ethnic clichés) creates a drag effect.  The oddity and seriousness of the ethnic drag marks the tone of the performance.

The original play by Ji Junxiang of the thirteenth century, in the form of Yuan zaju, consists mostly of versed songs, with minimal dialogue and limited stage movement.  Despite its revenge theme and apparent martial action, The Orphan of Zhao is a ‘civil play’ (wenxi), which means the emphasis would be placed on singing and light dancing, rather than the acrobatic movements that mark a ‘martial play’ (wuxi). In other words, in its original style, the multiple acts of violence in Orphan would be done with minimized action in its original style (slit the throat, freeze, then walk off stage), as the artistic emphasis would be placed on the singing.  In James Fenton’s adaptation, the text follows the civil style, with poetic language, multiple songs and lengthy monologues.  Even with added scenes to satisfy the Western popular sentimentalism;6 however, it seems that the Fenton version unfortunately still appears a bit ‘draggy’ (pun intended) for the action-driven modern Western audience.  To animate the play, ACT’s director Carey Perloff transforms Orphan into a semi-martial play, an action play à la Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). That award-winning, Chinese-language film by Ang Lee accentuated Chinese martial heroism through the combination of traditional martial arts film grammar and Hollywood action movie technological wonders. Its scenes of incredible fighting and flying over bamboo tops, for instance, create the spectacular wonder seen in a Hollywood action movie, but fail to illuminate the martial philosophy emphasized in a traditional martial arts film.7

Perloff explains her vision in the programme notes: ‘I knew we couldn’t do the ‘Peking opera’ version of Zhao, even if we wanted to; we had to find a way in that feels authentic to us.’  The decision was to start the master plan with a movement director and a fight coach to experiment with movements, such as the multiple violent acts.8  All representations of fighting and killing are done with sticks, which come in different lengths to function as spears, swords or daggers.  The choreographed group stick fight, which the Movement Director Stephen Buescher identifies as the ‘wushu pole-fighting style’, resembles any group fight one might see in a martial arts movie. His design is based on his observation of ‘a lot of Chinese movement, like qigong, taichi, some slow movement … [and] wushu martial arts that have animal-based movements.’9

(From left to right) Daisuke Tsuji, Orville Mendoza and Julyana Soelistyo in The Orphan of Zhao, adapted by James Fenton, co-produced by ACT and La Jolla Playhouse and directed by Carey Perloff in the Mandell Weiss Theatre, July 8 – August 3, 2014; photo by Kevin Berne.
 All images © La Jolla Playhouse. All rights reserved.

To accompany this movement-based approach is Daniel Ostling’s ingenious set: an outsizedscaffolding, made with bamboo-like tubes. The entire action takes place either on the scaffolding or on the floor in front of it. The musicians, following Chinese theatrical tradition, are visible: cello and violin players are upstage center at the floor level, and at the second level are drums on the left and other percussion instruments (including water bowls) on the right. During the production such staging effects are used as a sliding door opening, a panel dropping from the sky, and long drapes flying in the wind to indicate the change of location. Climbing up and down the scaffolding, characters tell stories at a palace, on the city walls, in the mountains, or on the road. In general, the abstract scenic approach works wonderfully with the stage action. The scaffolding literally becomes the ‘martial forest’ (wulin), the universe of the imagined martial world, and the characters are like monkeys leaping from tree to tree. The swift movement and fighting on the scaffolding remind us of the martial superheroes flying over the top of bamboo forests in Crouching Tiger.

Julyana Soelistyo (holding the baby) and the cast of The Orphan of Zhao by James Fenton, co-produced by ACT and La Jolla Playhouse and directed by Carey Perloff in the Mandell Weiss Theatre, July 8 – August 3, 2014; photo by Kevin Berne. All images © La Jolla Playhouse. All rights reserved.

The costume, designed by Linda Cho, has a hybrid style mixing the attire of the First Emperor’s terracotta warriors, plain-clothed villagers and kungfu fighters in martial arts movies, and a princess whose peculiar costume and headdress could be worn by an  Orientalized Turandot. Most characters are dressed in trousers with waist or hip-length vest-like tops, instead of the robes normally worn by actors in a Chinese opera version of Orphan. The simple costume allows for quick costume changes and quick movements up and down the scaffolding, and it also signals a martial arts movie based production. As if watching an animation of abstract art, the audience sees the generally dull coloured background (the scenery and most costumes) dubbed with moving blotches of bright colours (Emperor’s yellow, Princess’s green, Zhao Dun’s purple).  Red is the most pronounced colour metaphor, which transforms symbolically from a piece of cloth to a bundle (the baby Orphan), from the falling red beans (blood of Cheng Ying’s baby when stabbed) to the spirited adult Orphan (clad in all red).  The simplicity and minimalism create enticing visual effects.

In general, most actions (standing, talking, walking, running) are done in a naturalistic style, but a few stylized movements stand out.  Other than the choreographed fighting, the most obvious one is the ceremonial bowing with double hands clenched in a fist extended far or held up to the forehead, something clearly modelled on martial arts TV series or movies.  A number of stylized clichés also appear during some crowd scenes: villagers with big triangular hats hold lanterns mumbling nonsense such as ‘aiya’, or walk with fast tiny steps while fanning themselves with small fast action.  These familiar Orientalized movements transport the audience back to the late nineteenth-century stage or the early twentieth-century silver screen instantaneously.10

Julyana Soelistyo (holding the baby) and the cast of The Orphan of Zhao by James Fenton, co-produced by ACT and La Jolla Playhouse and directed by Carey Perloff in the Mandell Weiss Theatre, July 8 – August 3, 2014; photo by Kevin Berne. All images © La Jolla Playhouse. All rights reserved.

Why, I wonder, does a production with such a creative approach and innovative design needs additional clichés to authenticate itself?  A 21st-century production largely void of traditional Chinoiserie does not seem to feel secure enough to stand on its own without the intercultural lens, which has an unfortunate ‘Orientalist’ effect.  The clichés mentioned above seemed to function like a safety valve: in case the American audience did not get it, these familiar characteristics could prove that the California Orphan is indeed a Chinese play! Why, I wonder again, is it necessary to call The Orphan of Zhao the ‘Chinese Hamlet’,11 a ridiculous nickname that does not elucidate the original play but obscures it with the intercultural comparison? Does the original Orphan have no value on its own except for the far-fetched Shakespeare connection? On the other hand, why can’t the new Orphan stand on its own without the quasi-Chinesestaging, as numerous Shakespearean productions today have no intention of reinventing Elizabethan ‘flavour’?  Finally, does the California Orphan have to be presented as a Chinese play?  Fenton’s Orphan is ‘not quite Chinese’ but it is also ‘not quite not Chinese’ and it is the dual ethnic negation that makes Perloff’s direction appear blurry and insecure.  It is as if a Chinese story and an Asian cast alone cannot authenticate a ‘Chinese’ performance in Perloff’s mind; and therefore, the Asian actors have to appear in an Oriental ethnic drag–to be more Chinese, more Oriental, more ancient, or more Shakespeare.

After the first act, my neighbour audience asked me what I thought.  Without a beat, I said: ‘it’s like children’s theatre!’  But I soon realized the first thought that came into my mind at that moment was not original at all; I was remembering Sarah Bernhardt’s comment when she visited Chinese theatre (in the form of Cantonese opera) in San Francisco Chinatown in 1887. After seeing the choreographed fighting (it was called ‘childish sham battle’), she exclaimed: ‘It is a theatre for children, and it makes one feel like a child to be in it.’  Why did Cantonese opera look like children’s theatre to Sarah Bernhardt? I can only assume the various stylized conventions, which Chinese audiences took for granted, appeared pleasantly peculiar to the actress trained in naturalism.  She performed her own version of Chinese opera during her next visit to the Chinese theatre (1891).12

I was surprised by my own reaction, which coincided with hers from more than a century ago.  Perhaps the Orientalized Asian American actors seen through a post-racial lens today, and the Oriental actors seen through the Orientalist lens in Bernhardt’s time, both create a sense of childish oddity.  The fake and the real meet in the conception of Chinese theatre as presented as a children’s game of make-believe.  For the California Orphan, it was clear to me that realism was the basis for both the actors’ training and staging, so the occasional formalized movements were abrupt interruptions, not integrated stylization; in other words, the inserted quasi-Chineseelements felt like a children’s game of make-believe in which the players have no stakes in their role playing. While the story was carried out with naturalistic sincerity and emotion in the large part, the ‘playing Chinese’ portions functioned as if they were done in drag, or looked like a children’s ‘sham’ play.  Ethnic actors are often trapped in such a ‘drag’ situation in ethnic acting because of their ethnic proximity. Worse than the yellow-faced acting by a white actor, the Oriental ethnic drag is not detected based on the presumption of genuine ethnic acting by ethnic actors and the reconfirmation of the Orientalist clichés; it is ‘tolerated’ because of the institutionalized multiculturalism.

Therefore, this type of ethnic drag is usually not visible to everyone, partly because of the reasons discussed above, and partly because of the audience demographics. While small theatres are frequented by younger and diverse audiences, the subscription base for most large American regional theatres is largely middle-class, middle-aged, and white.13 In other words, most audience members are probably not familiar with the stage conventions of traditional Chinese theatre, but accustomed to certain stereotypical expression of Chineseness. This was very apparent during the post-show talk as audience members would mistake certain staging elements of Orphan for something directly derived from Chinese opera. I had to explain repeatedly that this beautiful production should not be viewed as traditional Chinese opera, but a creative American adventure. As a matter of fact, Perloff explains that Orphan is better described as ‘the Chinese Caucasian Chalk Circle’, which indicates that the basis of the production is not a Chinese story or tradition, but like Brecht’s play, a Western reinvention.14  However, the deliberate Chineseness unfortunately did not create any alienation effect, because the director and cast were not conscious of the critical space created by the Oriental ethnic drag.  This shortcoming of the otherwise masterfully executed production reflects one fundamental problem of contemporary American theatre: the institutionalized multiculturalism offers a ‘separate but equal’ space for theatres of ethnic minority; however, without the true understanding of race and ethnicity here and now, any authentification measure is to replay racial stereotypes and to reiterate the lingering racism. Instead of being acknowledged for their unique Asian Americanness, the actors are re-authenticated with familiar yellowface. The clichéd elements doubly Orientalize the misguided ‘original;’ therefore, the space between the intended ethnic representation and actual presentation has widened, and the Oriental ethnic drag à la Crouching Tiger becomes the dominant mode of the production.


Daphne Lei is Professor of Drama at the University of California, Irvine.  She is internationally known for her scholarly work on Chinese opera, Asian American theatre, as well as intercultural and transnational performance.  She has published many scholarly articles and two books: Operatic China: Staging Chinese Identity across the Pacific (Palgrave, 2006) and Alternative Chinese Opera in the Age of Globalization: Performing Zero (Palgrave, 2011).

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  1. The event was ‘Discovery Sunday TODAY’ on 27 July 2014 at La Jolla Playhouse. The moderator was Angela Carone, an arts and culture reporter for KPBS radio and television. My thanks go to Steve McCormick, the director of Education & Outreach of La Jolla Playhouse, for his organization of the event and for supplying additional research material.
  2. See, for instance, the LA Times article by David Ng, ‘Heated exchanges at La Jolla Playhouse over multicultural casting’ (23 July 2012). <http://articles.latimes.com/2012/jul/23/entertainment/la-et-cm-heated-exchanges-at-la-jolla-playhouse-over-nightingale-casting-20120722>.
  3. I have discussed the notion of Oriental ‘ethnic drag’ in various talks and publication, such as in ‘Dance Your Opera, Mime Your Words: (Mis)translate the Chinese Body on the International Stage’ (forthcoming in The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Theater by Oxford University Press).
  4. The lone Caucasian actor Nick Gabriel, a resident artist of ACT, plays the role of Zhao Dun, the father of the orphan, who kills himself early in the play.  Because of his limited presence, this production can be considered largely visually convincing based on the general rules of ethnic casting.
  5. Obviously, the discussion of mimicry (or rather, drag) in this article is very different from Homi Bhabha’s; nevertheless, I find such wording as ‘not quite’ effectively expresses the fundamental issues of ethnic acting in Asian American actors.  Homi Bhabha, Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse’, in Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge, 1994), pp. 85-92.
  6. A number of added scenes have a teary effect, such as when Cheng Ying’s wife sings a lullaby to the baby who is about to be killed, and when the son of Cheng Ying as a ghost comes to say to his father ‘you did love me’ (the last scene).
  7. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a transnational production (Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, and US) targeting international audience.  It is directed by Ang Lee (2000), starring such famous actors as Chow Yun-fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, and Chang Chen. It won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (Taiwan, 2000) and other prestigious awards.
  8. Carey Perloff, ‘Director’s Note’, insert in the program of The Orphan of Zhao (La Jolla Playhouse, 3 July- 3 August 2014).
  9. Shannon Stockwell, ‘The Visceral Heartbeat: An Interview with Movement Director Stephen Buescher’ in Words on Plays: Insight into the Play, Playwright, and Production, XX, 4: The Orphan of Zhao (San Francisco: ACT, 2014), pp. 20-24.
  10. This type of stereotypical Chinese scenes are common in many early Hollywood movies with Chinese themes, such Broken Blossoms (1919) and The Good Earth (1937).  Dave Williams’ collection contains numerous examples of stereotypical portrayal of Chinese characters on stage.  See Dave Williams, The Chinese Other: 1850-1925: An Anthology of Plays (Lanham MD: University Press of America, 1997).
  11. RSC constantly refers to their production of Orphan ‘the Chinese Hamlet’.  See, for instance, in RSC’s website (http://www.rsc.org.uk/explore/other-writers/the-orphan-of-zhao/) and in an interview with James Fenton (http://www.theworldofchinese.com/2012/09/the-chinese-hamlet-the-orphan-of-zhao/)
  12. See San Francisco Examiner, 16 May 1887 and 26 April 1891.  Also see my analysis of her visit in ‘Chinese Theatre and the Eternal Frontier in Nineteenth-Century California’, in Daphne Lei, Operatic China: Staging Chinese Identity across the Pacific (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), pp. 25-85.
  13. In the US, the high ticket price for large regional theatres makes it difficult to attract diverse audiences.  Many theatres have attempted to diversify and lower the age of subscribers by staging culturally diverse plays and reaching out to ethnic communities.  However, such tactic sometimes has negative effects: despite the short-term excitement such new plays generate, this approach often alienates some ‘loyal’ subscribers.  I have served on the Diversity Advisory Council for Laguna Playhouse, and balancing between diversifying and stablising the subscription base is the major topic of the council meetings.
  14. Perloff, ‘Director’s Note’.

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