Watching the Opera of Pvt. Danny Chen’s Life and Death

A loving moment between the mother, by Guang Yang, and the son, by Andrew Stenson. (Production photo via Sing Tao Daily)

A loving moment between the mother, played by Guang Yang, and the son, played by Andrew Stenson. (Production photo via Sing Tao Daily)

The uproar over the death of Pvt. Danny Chen two years ago and the continuing clamor for justice from the Chinese community have etched the details of his story in the minds of many. When “An American Soldier,” an opera based on his story, premiered at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. on June 14, followed by another performance the next day, the pain still brought tears to the eyes of audience members. Sobs were heard throughout the performance in the darkness of the theater. And the Q&A with the cast after the show was also intense, reminiscent of the atmosphere at the court hearings of Chen’s case.

The opera, with David Henry Hwang as the librettist and Huang Ruo as the composer, presented the tragedy vividly with operatic tools. Three themes were interwoven to sustain the hour-long story: the court hearings of five plaintiffs who were allegedly involved in Chen’s death; the court documents describing the hazing Chen suffered in the military and his struggles and confusion; and his mother’s narrative, which exposed the wounds in her heart after her only son chased his dream with her support, then ended up losing his life. The opera concluded with the message that “Love outlasts anything else, even death and trauma.”

Mother Chen, played by Guang Yang, was the most touching character. The mezzo-soprano looked quite similar to Chen’s real mother. Her singing, soaked in sorrow, brought the character of the mother who loved and missed her son to its fullest and made many audience members weep.

A relative of Chen, who sat right beside this reporter, cried from the beginning to the end. Chen’s parents and some other relatives, overwhelmed by grief, had to leave the theater 20 minutes after the curtain rose. They had replayed the story too many times in their minds and watching it dramatized was too much. The audience clearly felt their pain.

Hwang, Huang and several cast members held a Q&A with the audience after the show. To the surprise of many people, a defense lawyer for one of the plaintiffs and his wife were also among the audience. He said the opera was a good one and his wife couldn’t help weeping. But he thought the scene of Chen being beaten by stones and covered by bruises was at odds with the facts. And the discrimination in the military, depicted in the singing of African-American soldiers, was not true either.

Liz Ouyang, an attorney at the Organization of Chinese Americans who had been mobilizing the community to fight for justice for Chen, immediately shouted at the lawyer and told him to shut up. Ouyang said she had been present at the court for all the proceedings and she remembered all the defense arguments. He didn’t need to repeat them.

Michael Mao, a modern dancer, abruptly stood up and told the lawyer off: “Oh, please. This is theater, not a court of law. Do you understand art? Art doesn’t have to exactly mirror reality.”

Chen was tortured in the military. (Production photo via Sing Tao Daily)

Chen was tortured in the military. (Production photo via Sing Tao Daily)

The three of them stood there arguing and the atmosphere in the theater became charged.

The actor who played the sergeant responsible for Chen’s suicide was booed by the audience when he was introduced, thanks to his excellent performance. He was asked whether he had been in the military or had similar experiences and if not, how he could make it so real. The actor indeed had never been in the military. He was only an opera actor.

Chen’s parents stood outside the theater after leaving in the middle of the show. Not speaking English, they didn’t understand the lyrics. But when brutal assaults their son suffered were replicated on the stage, they could not bear it. An usher of the theater whose name was Ann approached mother Chen when they came out of the theater and told her: “I feel I am in your shoes. My son is following Danny’s route. I understand your feelings.” The two mothers, talking in different languages through an interpreter, held each other’s hand tightly.

Ann, an Indian American, is also a mother. Her only son joined the military without telling her. He is also the only Asian in his unit. Ann said she missed her son everyday. She wanted her son to fulfill his dream of becoming a soldier. But at the same time, she worried about her son being bullied. And the concerns made her life miserable.

The opera was about Chen’s life which was cut short by his patriotism as a Chinese American. But the story is not over. It continues for people from other racial backgrounds in the U.S. The endings may be different. But the struggle, confusion, fighting, reflection and assimilation in the story are the same.

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