Founded in 1992, The Yangtze Repertory Theatre of America is a major presenter of dramatic material emphasizing Chinese history and the Chinese immigrant experience. Under the leadership of accomplished artistic director Joanna Chan, the theater has produced work important not just to the Asian American community, for which it serves a central role, but to the New York theater community as a whole. As an artist, Chan has written, adapted and directed over fifty productions that have enjoyed presentation across the globe. Chan’s latest play, Forbidden City West, produced by the Yangtze Rep and currently running at Theater for the New City, won’t count among its successes. Part bio-play, part book musical, part variety show, the production fails at achieving any semblance of stylistic unity or dramatic import.
Forbidden City West aims to tell the story of legendary Chinese-American performer Jadin Wong, who headlined at the San Francisco nightclub from which the play takes its title. Photographed on the cover of Life Magazine in 1940 and achieving international success at a time when Chinese-American performers seldom did, Wong came to symbolize the performative exoticism of the Orient for white America. Later in life, she ran a talent agency specializing in Asian-American actors, and in doing so became a mentor to new generations of Asian-American artists.
The real-life Jadin (pronounced jayDEEN) sounds like a compelling, complicated woman, but as portrayed by Debbie Wong (in her youth) and Ji Lian Wang (in her later years), she comes across as startlingly one-note. Wong’s Jadin is consistently spunky, confident, and a bit remorseful; Wang’s is kind, instructive, and a bit remorseful. The curiosity of the elder Jadin developing an accent that she never had in her youth is not nearly so troublesome as the fact that, though the production spans Jadin’s life from childhood well into her eighties, at no point do we see any real depth of character. The problem lies in large part with the script: though it depicts Jadin in a number of what ought to be high stakes situations (delivering her infant brother, parachuting into the black forest during WWII, fighting racism in the performance world), there are depressingly few moments of actual dramatic action. Without conflict or character development, Forbidden City West renders what must have been a fascinating life unnecessarily dull.
Although Forbidden City West bills itself as a musical, its songs (with music by Gregory Frederick and lyrics by Chan) seldom advance the plot. Instead, variety show-like, they provide musical interludes: a tap dance, an Italian aria, a comic karate number. Perhaps the numbers are intended as an homage to the nightclub from which the play takes its title, but even the full-company numbers fail to sparkle with the energy needed to justify their presence.
The play would benefit from a tighter focus on the life of its protagonist, but instead the slow-paced production meanders far and wide. Its scope includes numerous scenes of Jadin’s mother as a young girl (singing in Chinese and reading in English) and of immigrant Chinese men (complaining about the state of their world), which provide context but not much more. A single scene of each might suffice; instead they reappear throughout the production with little new to offer each time. Similarly, the elder Jadin’s relationship with an aspiring writer (he must learn to make his screenplays marketable rather than political) accomplish in four scenes what a cleaner script could accomplish in two.
It’s easy to understand why Chan felt drawn to create a production centered on the life of Jaydin Wong. Forbidden City West serves as a reminder that compelling source material isn’t enough to save a production.