In the opening of Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s 410[Gone], Twenty-One (Carolina Do), a college-aged Chinese American, has been desperately trying to contact her deceased brother, Seventeen (Roger Yeh), in the afterlife by instant message, email, and voice mail. She is initially worried that he can’t comprehend them because her words have been converted to binary, but she also asks, “If you were born in America but your blood is Chinese, what language should my letters be in?”
The Yangtze Repertory Theatre of America explores this question in an excellent production directed by Chongren Fan that continues at the Theater for the New City through June 18.
To Seventeen’s bewilderment, he’s been sent to the Chinese Land of the Dead where the deceased are digitized and their souls are transmigrated to the next earthly vessel. This underworld looks like an arcade and is managed by a bickering odd couple, an irritable Goddess of Mercy (Meilin Gray) and the ever-mischievous Monkey King (Gerardo Pelati). Twenty-One’s persistent efforts to connect with her brother is a tether that hinders Seventeen from completing the reincarnation process. To the frustration of the Goddess of Mercy but to the delight of the Monkey King who now has a friend, he lingers in limbo. Having only drunk some of the amnesia-inducing meng po soup required of all who pass from one life to the next, he faintly remembers his life. It turns out Twenty-One’s efforts to make contact with her brother, when based on Chinese superstitions and rituals, are successful and jogs his memory. She is called (literally, on a telephone) to Land of the Dead. We see her anguish and comprehend the depth of their relationship. With the help of the Goddess of Mercy, she comes to terms with her brother’s death and shares last happy moments with him before helping him on to the next life.
This dark and often humorous play, which takes its title from the HTTP status code that indicates a target resource is permanently gone, is a strange fantasy that refreshes traditional Chinese characters and stories. This imaginative shell is an important part of the work but should not distract from what director Fan identifies as a hidden thread in the story, the relationship between pain and love. “Love can be painful, and pain could be caused by certain [types of] love, especially between family members or close friends,” he explains. The talented young cast gets this symbiosis.
Carolina Do shares in real life her character’s big sister sense of responsibility for and idealization of her brother, and Roger Yeh, who like his character is a younger brother, is energetic with teenage pomposity. It’s moving to watch them work through the complex emotions of siblinghood.
For the role, Meilin Gray expanded her knowledge about the Goddess of Mercy by researching how she varies across different cultures. Recognizing how hard it must be to bear the expectations and burdens of your followers, Gray’s Goddess of Mercy is strong-willed and dutifully wants to get the job done. But, it leaves her irritated, and it doesn’t help she has to put up with her scampy friend, the Monkey King. She and Gerardo Pelati tease and torment each other with exactly the right amount of push and pull. The clashes are snappy and dynamic that reflect their characters’ close friendship and annoyance with each other.
The production helps focus on the characters by minimizing potentially distracting visual references to the video game underworld. The countless notes placed on the walls of Twenty-One’s room prove an effective way to signify her agony and obsession with understanding her brother’s suicide.
I’ve been curious about Cowhig’s engagement with Chinese culture since seeing The World of Extreme Happiness which tells the story of a orphan girl who finds a job in a factory as an adult and is led to believe she can accomplish anything by believing in herself. While the main character was interesting, China’s factories, political system, and wealthy were uncomplicated clichés. How would Buddhism and Chinese culture appear in this 410[Gone]? Cowhig, who is half-Chinese and spent time in Beijing and Taipei in her youth, has seen her perceived identity shift depending on where she was and who she was among. How would she approach Asian American identity?
Many Chinese Americans will at least be vaguely familiar with some of the Chinese characters, stories, or rituals. Twenty-One and Seventeen might even remind them of themselves. But, would anyone think Chinese Americans end up in the Chinese Land of the Dead and are subject to superstitions and rituals that they may have only heard about? Are Chinese Americans bound to their cultural heritage?
How the two siblings connect with their cultural heritage is frequently shown throughout the play. They share a good-natured mockery of certain Asian mannerisms, but they otherwise differ in their embrace of culture. Twenty-One, as the older of the two, seems to have an earnest relationship with it. She wonders about a superstition about trimming your fingernails at night she learned from her grandmother, and she burns joss paper for her brother. Meanwhile, Seventeen proclaims he eats pizza and spaghetti not traditional Chinese food. He also reveals what his expectations for China: “Where are the pandas, the factory, the lady playing mahjongg, the Shaolin monks, the men who walk their birds in cases and get up early to do tai chi?”
Asian Americans know this simultaneous embrace and rejection of their parents’ culture. They understand parts of it but also hold misconceptions. Do, who grew up praying to the Goddess of Mercy at her family’s altar but for whom the bodhisattva was mythical and not a solace, describes not being steeped in Asian culture like her parents and trying, but failing, to fit into two worlds. Yeh now regrets not continuing studying the language and embracing his culture more, but at the time his parents forced him to go to Chinese school, he felt his free time was “being taken away for a culture that seemed so foreign and, at times, shameful.”
This sense of foreignness contributes to the feeling of cultural disconnect many Asian Americans share with the two actors. However, Do holds hope that this foreignness won’t be imposed on Asian Americans in the future. “I think people who are not Asian will learn a lot from this play because in Western theater, we have had hundreds of plays that focus on Western religion and rituals, yet Eastern religion and rituals are still a fetish and mystery to the modern audience. I think it’s well past time for it.”
Meanwhile, Asians might respond to the play differently. Chinese all know about the Goddess of Mercy and may be in awe of her non-canonical sass. They may find it funny that Twenty-One’s food offering to her brother is pickles and that he doesn’t want them. Yet, there may still be a cultural disconnect. Fan, who was born and raised in China, loved that so many Chinese elements were incorporated into the script but admits he could know certain things from Chinese culture better. “My generation of Chinese are not that far from young Asian Americans. We live in a world where art and media is dominated by Western culture and point of views,” he says. To him, the play addresses a generational gap.
The play’s use of things Chinese deftly gives cultural identity a presence in the play without making it about identity. Additionally, what’s remarkable is that identity is addressed without use of conflict and without the involving outside perspectives and interactions. It’s just part of its being.
410[Gone] continues with four more performances at the Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue, June 15 – 17 at 7:30 PM and June 18 at 2 PM. Tickets can be purchased here. Get 15% off tickets online with the code ‘PICKLE’.
The play is is performed in English with Chinese subtitles off to the side. Run time is approximately 75 minutes with no intermission.