Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin
History Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Goodbye Cruel World, Six Degrees of Separation, Dinner at Eight and Citizen: An American Lyric and Kit's review of Thurgood


Song Kim and Audrey Park
Photo by Scott Pakudaitis
"Paper son" and "paper daughter" are terms for citizens of China who entered the United States illegally between 1882 and 1943, the years in which the Chinese Exclusion Act was in effect. That act was the first legislation in the United States restricting the immigration of a specific national group, and was not fully repealed until 1965. Under the law, a Chinese person might be permitted to enter if he or she could prove themselves to be the child of a Chinese resident legally in the United States. "Paper sons and daughters" purchased and memorized detailed descriptive manuals about such a Chinese individual in order to pass through a grueling interrogation process and be granted entrance to the U.S. Often, "paper fathers" lived on the east coast or in the midwest, and thus could not be summoned to bear witness to the entry-seeker. It was up to the entry-seeker to recall every detail contained in their manuals, and when asked about something not in the manual, to produce an answer based on cultural practice and logic. If not, they were revealed as frauds and shipped back to China.

Harry Chin was one such "paper son." The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin, a new play by Jessica Huang, tells Harry's story, but not in chronological order. It unrolls in the order in which Harry's mind processes the memories and regrets that have clung to him over the years. It depicts the hardships of leaving behind a wife in China in 1939 to find work in America, forsaking his own family name for the name of his "paper father," and making a life in a foreign land where he worked in Chinese restaurants long days, seven days per week. After entering in Seattle, Harry relocated in 1940 to Saint Paul. Unable to contact his Chinese family, first because of the war, then the Chinese Communist takeover, he fell in love with and married Laura, an American waitress from a small Minnesota town. Together they raised Sheila, who, as the play begins, is an independent young woman on whose sofa her dad, Harry, has been sleeping for the past year. It is 1971.

Through flashbacks, dramatizations of Harry's memories, and visits by ghosts from Harry's past, his life is revealed both as a web of sorrows and as a triumph of will and hope. Harry's wife Laura died a year before, which is when he took up residence on his daughter's couch. Laura appears in Harry's memories, happy recollections until they touch on topics Harry cannot bring himself to discuss. Harry never saw his Chinese wife after leaving China, but she is a persistent presence in his mind. His dear friend, dubbed the Poet, who traveled from China with Harry as a fellow hopeful "paper son," haunts him too. The turbulence in Harry's mind costs him his job and puts a wedge between him and Sheila. There will be no peace for Harry unless he can reconcile his feelings of having disappointed and hurt all of these people whom he loved, and overcome the irrational shame of being a "paper son."

The play never fails to hold interest, but some scenes soar in their power. One is the interrogation scene as Harry arrives at the Seattle point of entry, feverishly hoping for his "paper son" deception to work. As Harry does not yet know English, we hear the interrogator as Harry does—an outpouring of gibberish, presented as fierce animalistic roars, grunts and whistles, amplified like the powerful Wizard of Oz. Another gripping scene is split between Harry being interviewed for the Chinese Confession Program (a program from 1956-1965 that gave "paper sons and daughters" the chance to come clean, though with risk of deportation), while across the stage Laura is being confronted by a visitor from Harry's Chinese past who sets a tailspin of events in motion. The back and forth dynamic is skillfully written, and smoothly directed by Mei Ann Teo.

At points Huang's dialogue feels a little stiff, and there are gaps here and there in the narrative. The years between Laura's discovery of Harry's past and her death under tragic circumstances are unaccounted for and leaves unanswered questions about how the former led to the latter. Ghostly visitors is a fine device, but having ghosts dress one way when they show up randomly, and then appear in "ghost apparel" at a later time, seems overly stagy. Overall, though, The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin works, and works very well. It requires our attention to follow Harry's story as he works through the shards of memory, back and forth in time, but the story does comes together. A powerful and moving final scene provides assurance that Harry will survive the crisis. Indeed, Harry Chin lived a long life. He died in Minnesota, in 2013.

Song Kim is superb in the central role of Harry Chin. I have not seen Kim's work before, but hope to see him often in the future. He manages the extensive array of Harry's feelings—panic, fear, joy, anger, determination and defeat. He is completely charming at one moment and convincingly losing his wits another. He also handles a cutting knife with aplomb, chopping vegetables in the restaurant kitchen. Meghan Kreidler is affecting as Sheila, showing her clear love for her father, but also her frustration and the hurt he causes her. She does a good job too in a scene that requires her to be Sheila at age 14.

Sherwin Resurreccion is terrific as the Poet, Harry's friend who conveys all the fears and consequences of a failed "paper son." Audrey Park is completely affecting in two roles that connect Harry to his Chinese past. Sandra Struthers plays Laura, a character who lacks depth in comparison to the others—perhaps because, as an American born woman, she does not face the same struggles as the others. Yet, as the wife of a Chinese man in the mid-20th century, one imagines there may have been challenges; if so, these are not a significant part of the play. Wrapping up the cast, Rolando Martinez does a good job as a boss forced to bear down on an employee he clearly likes, and as the monstrous interrogator.

Director Mei Ann Teo has corralled a complicated play, with numerous elements, into a coherent and compelling whole. All creative contributions are top notch, with Joel Sass' busy set, offering several playing areas—a bridge, Sheila's clean-lined home, and an open area that converts from a restaurant kitchen to an apartment to an interrogation room without us even noticing. There is also an ingeniously designed Buick that plays a key role in several scenes. Trevor Bowen's costumes capture the times and cultural origins of the characters, with creative flounces for the white ghostly apparel. Katherine Horwitz has done terrific work with the sound design, including the terrifying voice of the interrogator, while Wu Chen Khoo's lighting beautifully conveys the presence of spirits, and shifts in Harry's mental state.

Playwright Huang has done an excellent job of dramatizing this saga. It is part glimpse into history, part story of a family affected by the force of that history, and part mystery, as it shifts back in forth in time to reveal the different pieces of his life Harry struggles to assemble into a whole. It is also, given the tenor of our times, a notice of how exclusionary immigration policies based on national origin or ethnicity shatter families and keep people with much to offer from entering our nation, weakening our greatness which has always been bolstered by the contributions of new waves of immigrants and infusions of new cultural influences. It is often said that those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it. History Theatre continues to bring our history back to life. With results as artistically satisfying and emotionally powerful as The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin we are given a potent resource for learning our history; it is left to us not to relive it.

The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin continues at History Theatre through April 9, 2017. 30 East 10th Street, Saint Paul, MN, 55102. Tickets $25.00 - $40.00; seniors (age 60+) $25.00 - $38.00; under 30 $25.00 - $30.00; students $15.00. For tickets call 651-292-4323 or go to historytheatre.com.

Writer: Jessica Huang; Director: Mei Ann Teo; Scenic Design: Joel Sass; Costume Design: Trevor Bowen; Lighting Design: Wu Chen Khoo; Sound Designer: Katherine Horowitz; Properties Designer: Abbee Warmboe; Technical Director: Gunther Gullickson; Assistant Director: Kayla Girdner; Dramaturg: Jeremy Tiang; Stage Manager: Janet L. Hall.

Cast: Song Kim (Harry Chin), Meghan Kreidler (Sheila), Rolando Martinez (boss/interrogator), Audrey Park (Yuet/Susan), Sherwin Resurreccion (poet/immigration officer), Sandra Struthers (Laura).


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