“The Far Country” Claws into the Wounds of Erasure
In the 2022 off-Broadway staging of Lloyd Suh’s The Chinese Lady at the Public Theater, the world quakes when Afong Moy, a real-life figure documented to be the first Chinese woman immigrant in the US (embodied by Shannon Tyo), steps out of her sideshow box. Brought to NYC from Guangzhou by white traders as an exoticized prize, Moy hardens into a witness and psychological victim of the anti-Chinese racism inflamed by the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.
In his newest play, The Far Country, directed by Eric Ting and now playing at the off-Broadway Linda Gross Theatre, Suh further explores those corrosive effects of the Chinese Exclusion Act. The current production also opens in a box of sorts, this time with pitch-black walls that insinuate a liminal torment. For 10 minutes before showtime, the audience sees the dimly lit backside of an anonymous Chinese man waiting in a San Francisco interrogation room in 1909.
The play’s first few scenes deal with the ensuing trial. With a worldly weariness, Jinn S. Kim plays Gee, a San Francisco laundry owner who fabricates his life’s story to persuade the Ellis Island officers that he’s American-born and qualifies for US citizenship. After narrowly succeeding, Gee manages his way back to the Taishan region in China and proposes a deal with a former neighbor, Low (Amy Kim Waschke), to claim her son, Moon Gyet (Eric Yang), as his paper son and employ him at his laundromat. While Low admonishes the exploitation of the practice (or the idea that every Chinese person would aspire to Americanism), Moon Gyet accepts Gee’s terms and the indentured servitude that comes with it.
Suh’s words portray that survival in the west has a price on the soul. Waschke encapsulates the heartbreak of an austere but loving mother who knows that the US and its demanding requirements will compromise the Chinese identity of her son. To retain any semblance of dignity and identity, she orders her son, who has to fabricate a new background for himself, to hold onto his filial piety. Moon Gyet then endures severe bureaucratic interrogations at the Angel Island Detention Center. There’s no end to the ambush of asinine questions—including the number of stair steps of a household—that demand impeccable precision and repetitious answering. Ostensibly, this interrogation is used by the white immigration inspector (Christopher Liam Moore) to identify a lapse in memory to weed out deception.
So when Moon Gyet visits his mother years later, we feel the weight of their separation. Moon Gyet confesses he wavers between truth and fiction in the letters he sent back home. “Occasionally, I do tell the truth,” he admits. In a gasp-inducing line, it also surfaces that Ellis Island detained him for 17 months, not 3 months, as he told her. Here, fudging his memory is a means of self-preservation, an attempt to lessen the burden on himself and his mother.
In one gut-wrenching direct address, a detained Moon Gyet finds solace in a wall of Chinese poems drawn by trapped immigrants. The collective spirits of Chinese men (Whit K. Lee and Jinn S. Kim) reveal that Ellis Island officers painted over their words, but other Chinese detainees carved new poems into the walls. They share that Ellis Island officials grew increasingly creative with their methods of erasure, even filling the carved inscriptions in with putty. But time stripped these attempts away, rendering the hidden poetry more visible to the future.
However, the limiting staging in this production falls short of matching the poetic expectations of the material. Underneath Jiyoung Chang’s lighting, Clint Ramos’s ink-black, mirror-flanked scenic spread leaves too few distinctions between American and Chinese landscapes (Low’s household is only meagerly distinguished by an altar). The initial emptiness does feel purposeful, so the spread may lightly permit more details such as the projection of Chinese poems on the detention center walls. Later, background glass panes reveal Chinese characters folded into paper flowers, which suggests that other lost stories will blossom their way to visibility. But despite spurts of symbolic poignancy, the set doesn’t quite bloom out of its darkness.
The show’s best performance, next to Waschke’s, comes from Tyo, who effuses an otherwise bereft landscape with generational hope. Tyo resurrects the same wide-eyed magnetism that animated her optimistic-from-the-start Afong May to life on the Public Theater stage. As Yuen, an eventual wife of Moon Gyet, Tyo bundles her character with mundane but optimistic practicality. It’s Yuen’s words that provide closure for the loss of memory. “Your body remembers,” she reassures an elderly and bedridden Gee, who is distraught that his memories have faded. She assures him that it’s more than enough that his body carries his story even when his mind is worn out. The Far Country is a melancholic but hopeful homage to Chinese American history carried inside their hearts, their bones, and their flesh.
Caroline Cao is a writer based in New York City.