Immigration. Baby Boomers were taught immigration as an influx of happy people bound for the golden hills of wealth and prosperity in the Promised Land. There was a lot of flag (Old Glory, of course) waving and George M. Cohan music. Lost in the jingoistic rhetoric was the real experience of too many ethnic groups. SIS Productions' "Paper Angels" attempts to illuminate for the modern audience the experience of Chinese immigrants at San Francisco Bay's Angel Island. It is as much history lesson as drama. It is an important and valuable work in the theater landscape. "Paper Angels" continues at Dukesbay Theater in Tacoma through Aug. 16. Friday and Saturday shows begin at 8 p.m. Saturday matinees open at 4 p.m. Sunday matinees begin at 3 p.m. The show then moves to Seattle Aug. 20 and plays to the end of the month.
Directed by David Hsich, "Paper Angels" tells the story of men and women, some married and separated from each other, stuck in limbo between the ship and the promise of California's Bay Area. Immigration authorities are dismissive at best, and downright cruel at worst. But they only reflect the attitude of a society which needed the Chinese to build the railroads, only to reject them as "job-stealers" when the late-century Depression hit. To miss the timeliness of "Paper Angels" is to have ignored current events forever.
In a cast of uniform excellence, three actors shone. Stephen Sumida's Chin Gung spent 40 years on American soil. He went back to China to retrieve his wife, only to be denied re-entry. Mr. Sumida plays the role with overarching wisdom. His experience teaching Asian-American studies and theater at the University of Washington serves him well in this endeavor.
His wife, Chin Moo, is portrayed by Eloisa Cardona. Chin Moo's heart breaks and takes the beating hearts of the audience with her on the journey.
Phoenix Ever's Mei Lei is frustrated. To be so close to American soil is one thing, but to be mistreated is another thing entirely. She is disillusioned with her first taste of American "hospitality." Her situation at the end of the play would make an excellent sequel. Phoenix Ever would do a great job in the sequel too.
"Paper Angels" is an entertaining night at the theater, but it is just as much an important historical touchstone. Producers chose Tacoma, Wash. for Opening Night. Tacoma expelled all Asian-Americans in the late 1800s...with 24 hours notice.
An interactive discussion follows the performances. The discussion fleshes out some of the background information from whence the work was derived. Executive Producer Kathy Hsieh led the discussion on Opening Night.
The play is 70 minutes in length but feels longer. That statement should be taken as a compliment to the amount of ground covered in the vignettes that make up each scene. Go see the play, and stay for the discussion. The whole thing is 90 minutes. It is a great thing to be so thoroughly entertained while being so efficiently educated in an hour and a half.
Two casts alternate performances. This effort to give more Asian-American artists a chance to show their stuff is commendable.
Tickets for "Paper Angels" are available through Brown Paper Tickets. General admission tickets cost $15.34. Students, seniors, and theater artists receive a $4.14 discount.
The show is playing in the 40-seat Dukesbay Theater, inside The Merlino Art Center, 508 S. Sixth Ave, Tacoma. The intimate setting ensures there isn't a bad seat in the house. But the intimate setting would suggest theater-goers arrive early.