|Kathy Hsieh (front) in Paper Angels (Celeste Mari Williams)|
Through August 31
Hurry over to the old INS building to the performance space “INScape” to see a beautifully written play revealing another example of American injustice toward immigrants! Paper Angels, by poet and playwright Genny Lim, focuses on the immigration center on Angel Island, a large island in the middle of San Francisco Bay that processed a million Asians through its doors. However, there were extra-special rules for Chinese.
Have you ever heard of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882? It’s not likely taught in very many American History classes in high school, but it reflected attitudes of resentment against Chinese workers – a ubiquitous ethnic exclusion that was focused only on Chinese while unfettered immigration of any other backgrounds was unchecked.
The play introduces a few of the many kinds of immigrants who wished to enter the U.S. All would have had to carry paper with them certifying that they were eligible to enter. Some of them carried identification that they were sons of Chinese immigrants already in the States. They were called “paper sons,” but not all of them were related to the men they were coming to join.
Some men were forced to sell their sons’ papers for various reasons, to raise money, so the immigration center personnel quizzed both the men and their “paper sons” to find out if each knew all the facts about the other they were supposed to know. So, cheat books were developed with all sorts of facts for the immigrant to memorize about his “father’s” family, but anyone caught with them was prevented from entering the U.S.
This long one act is simply presented with a stark wooden barracks-style set by Brandon Estrella, carved with Chinese poems from years of immigrants waiting to be released. Appropriate period costuming by Miko Premo provides easy identification of the inmates, the guards, and the officials. David Hsieh directs with clarity and sensitivity.
Each role in the production is double cast (in part to allow more actors of color the opportunity to participate), so you’ll never see the exact same set of players from one show to the next. For the show I saw, Kathy Hsieh was the leading lady in a heartbreaking role of a patient Chinese wife whose husband left 40 years before, but then returned to bring her, somewhat unwillingly, to America. Hsieh ably demonstrated the restraint and patience of the character, along with her desire to help others.
This weekend, that role will be played by Eloisa Cardona. There is one extra performance scheduled, now, since the production has been selling out!
The rest of the cast that I saw was strong (and large). A few had to speak Chinese, which they appeared to do with aplomb as far as I could tell… Chris Wong played the husband who left his wife behind and returned to get her, even though it meant he had to reapply to enter the U.S. without guarantee of success. Wong has a moving, sturdy, wise presence in the role.
The star of the show, though, is the language of Lim. Though she is writing about history, her choices are precise and elucidating. She weaves a defined tapestry of characters whose lives we can experience and identify with. Those who can get tickets will appreciate and remember this production!