I’ve heard about the Borscht Belt and the Chitlin’ Circuit. But before seeing “Surfing My DNA” — which will be at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch through May 26 — I had never heard of the Chop Suey Circuit, a network of nightclubs catering to Asian-Americans in the mid-20th century.
Jodi Long, who wrote the autobiographical “Surfing My DNA” and stars in it (accompanied only by a musician, multi-instrumentalist Yukio Tsuji), traces her DNA back to the Chop Suey Circuit. It’s where her parents made their living when she was growing up, dancing and telling jokes, vaudeville-style. It’s also where they honed an act that was good enough to propel them to the big time, in the form of an appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
Long followed in their footsteps (sorf of), becoming an actress herself, and has a long list of credits — on Broadway and regional theater, in Hollywood and indie movies, and on television dramas and comedies — to show for it. (New Jersey Repertory Company regulars recently saw her with Jill Eikenberry and others in “Fern Hill”). “Surfing My DNA,” directed by Eric Rosen, is about her life and career, with anecdotes about the some of the shows she’s been in, and some of the people she’s met.
The show — which takes place on a mostly bare stage, with just a couple of trunks and a chair, and a few props to help Long bring her stories to life — is also about prejudice. She’s encountered it both inside the entertainment industry (having to portray stereotypically Asian characters, and play along with racist jokes) and outside of it.
Perhaps most of all, though, it’s about her often rocky relationship with her parents, who come alive vividly, with Long acting as them as she tells her stories. (And we get to see that “Ed Sullivan Show” performance, which really helps us understand what they were all about, as well.)
“Surfing My DNA” (the title echoes stories of Long spending summers in Bradley Beach, not far from Long Branch, as a child) has a lot of ground to cover. Long, who is now in her 60s, began acting at the age of 7, in a Sidney Lumet-directed Broadway production of the musical “Nowhere to Go but Up.” She’s funny and charming throughout, and keeps the energy level high, as any life-long showbiz trouper would.
Throughout, she resists the urge to smooth out the rough edges of her life story, or turn it into simplified, uplifting fiction. Her story rambles a bit, but that’s one of the reasons it rings so true.
“Surfing My DNA” will be at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch through May 26. Visit njrep.org.