“Issei, He Say, or the Myth of the First” sneaks up on you.
I found the first act, and the first half of the second act, less than compelling, but the last few scenes emotionally devastating. Stick with this one, and you will be rewarded.
It’s a new play, written by Chloé Hung and currently having its world premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. The rather cumbersome title refers to the status of three of its characters as first generation Canadians: Mr. Chu and Mrs. Chu (played by Fenton Li and Kathleen Kwan) are Chinese immigrants living in a predominantly white Toronto suburb, in 1969. Mr. Yamamoto (Stan Egi) is a Japanese immigrant who lives next door. The story is told through the eyes of the Chus’ daughter, Lucy (Christina Liang), who is 13.
It’s hard enough, of course, just to be Japanese in this environment: Lucy is subject to constant teasing by her schoolmates. (We’d call it bullying now; realistically, for the times they are living in, the Chus feel powerless to stop it.)
But Lucy has troubles at home, too. Her hard-headed father is practically consumed by his unreasonable hatred for Yamamoto, since his family suffered greatly in the Second Sino-Japanese War. Yamamoto had nothing to do with it, of course, and has suffered plenty on his own, we eventually learn. But since Yamamoto is Japanese, he still represents “the enemy” to Mr. Chu, and he just can’t let it go.
Adding to the tension, the Chu family undergoes a traumatic event at the end of the first act that turns their lives upside-down.
Despite everything, including his father’s stern disapproval, Lucy grows closer to Yamamoto, a kindly man who seems more interested in tending his cheerful garden than in rehashing old grievances (the Chus’ yard is, significantly, a neglected mess). Yamamoto gives Chu a kind of guidance that she’s not getting from her parents — and Mr. Chu seethes about it.
Meanwhile, the Chu family becomes, somewhat humorously, immersed in Western culture. This is illustrated by Mr. Chu’s uncharacteristically frivolous addiction to television, and Mrs. Chu awkwardly but joyously singing and dancing to the Elvis Presley hit, “Hound Dog,” when she thinks (incorrectly) that no one is watching.
Still, the story — drawn, in part, from the history of Hung’s own family (see video below) — seems a bit mundane at first. But eventually, the simmering feud between the neighbors comes to a head, and there are some impressive dramatic fireworks, and then a sweet resolution, and then a hopeful final scene.
And we finally see why Hung thought this was a story worth telling.
New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch will present “Issei, He Say, or the Myth of the First” through May 20. Visit njrep.org.