Ancient Chinese Story Coming to Off-Broadway

Poster from a reading done in April.

There aren’t many Asian performers on the stages of U.S. theaters, and even fewer plays telling Chinese stories. Some visiting Chinese scholars and theater major students would like to see that change, at least, via their own efforts. One result of that effort is “Where is My Maple Town,” an off-Broadway play to debut in August with an all-Asian cast that will tell a Chinese story in English.

According to the Asian American Performers Action Coalition, only 4 percent of all roles on stages in New York went to Asian performers while Asians make up 13 percent of the city’s population. The play’s director Simone Xiaopeng Teng, a doctoral student at the Shanghai Theatre Academy and visiting scholar at City College of New York, has directed and starred in many theatrical productions in China, including the multimedia hit “The Three-Body Problem.” But in New York, she said she found Asian actors have very few opportunities in the theater world. She attributed it mainly to the low number of Asian stories that have been written for the theater rather than overt racial bias.

When Teng met Rain Yuting He, a graduate student at Shanghai Theatre Academy and an exchange student at Columbia University, the two immediately agreed to translate a play He wrote three years ago in Chinese into English and stage it in New York. Their plan was backed up by their alma mater, which provides funding for the production. The actors and actresses are all Asian professional or student performers. “We thought if other people don’t give us opportunities, we can create our own,” Teng said.

The story is set during the time of an ancient dynasty in China. An honest young intellectual was forced to get involved in a cheating scandal. Then one thing led to another. Tempted by worldly success and pleasure, he not only gradually lose his integrity, but also brought his family and friends down with him.

Yuting He said she was inspired by the discussion in China about how today’s intellectuals can maintain their independent soul in the face of all sorts of temptations and avoid being manipulated by their own personal interests.

This may sound like a universal topic, but the play’s ancient Chinese setting means the story has to involve the traditional Chinese civil service examination system, the only avenue by which intellectuals in ancient times could advance to power. At a script reading at Columbia University, non-Chinese audience members sometimes found themselves lost hearing terms like “imperial examination,” “jinshi (a degree)” and “lian zhong san yuan (a person who ranked first in three different level exams).” The production team adjusted the script based on the feedback and added the character of a narrator who explains the cultural nuances of the terms to the audience. “To interact with the audience is a very important component of theater art,” He said.

Teng said because it is a Chinese story, there will be many Chinese elements in the show, such as traditional instruments. But they were determined to have all conversations in English because they want to show an international audience that Chinese drama is no longer just Peking opera. “We know we may have a long way to go to Broadway. But we young people who work in the art of theater have plenty of courage,” Teng said.

The show will be presented at Theatre Row (410 W. 42nd St.) from Aug. 24 to Sept. 2. For tickets, go to: https://www.telecharge.com/Off-Broadway/Where-Is-My-Maple-Town/Overview

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