What We Talk About When We Talk About Race: A New Play Shows It's Not What It Seems

06/18/2017 03:31 pm ET Updated Jun 19, 2017
The creative team for <em>Harm</em>: Don Castro, director Bill English, Lauren English, Charisse Loriaux, James Asher, playwr
Courtesy SF Playhouse
The creative team for Harm: Don Castro, director Bill English, Lauren English, Charisse Loriaux, James Asher, playwright Christopher Chen.

I flew across the country to see Christopher Chen’s You Mean to Do Me Harm, presented by SF Playhouse. I am glad I did. I booked my flight back from the East Coast to make it for the one night that I could see the show during its run. There aren't many plays like this.

I have been following Chen. He won an Obie for Caught, which had the distinction of running simultaneously in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Chen works, and New York City. That triptych deconstructed stereotypes Americans have of Chinese, and Chinese have of Americans, as well as the dubious interactions of the global art market. It was all about the ease of fraud, including that practiced on an audience gullible enough to accept the worst accusations about China, especially if accompanied by claims of creativity just this side of pretentious.

An earlier farce, Mutt, imagined a Presidential candidate being recruited for his race, specifically his mixed race identity. It premiered in the basement of a Berkeley pizza parlor. A mash up of film noir and science fiction, as if Raymond Chandler fell into Flatland, entitled Home Invasion, was put on in somebody’s actual living room.

All these pieces have entertained. None have been derivative.

Harm opens with two thirty something couples, one Asian male-white female, the other white male-Asian female, at a dinner party. The Asian male has hired the white male, or his buddy has, at a startup search engine firm intent on knocking off Google. The white male and the white female dated while in college, and, crucially, they once went camping. The Asian female beat out her own husband (the aforementioned white male) for a promotion at the non-profit where they reported to a South Asian boss, resulting in the man of the house being downsized out of work.

Harm could be considered part of a recent series of cautionary tales about inviting people over for a meal. God of Carnage (a global blockbuster for Yasmina Reza in 2008) and Disgraced (Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize winner, the most produced play of 2016), two other recent Broadway hits, demonstrated in detail how dinner parties can descend into hell or at least purgatory. In this instance, a random line of dialogue, which it turns out was the result of a nudge on social media, triggers latent racial resentment in a slow burn. The Asian male, born in China but an immigrant at an early age to America, perceives what nobody else does, that camping is more than setting up a tent in the woods. To him, camping is about who owns those woods — and by extension, his wife. As he explains, it’s not the same, you see, the AMWF combination and its mirror image, because the Asian male has been emasculated in the culture. In a subsequent conversation, the Asian female asserts that gender discrimination is worse than racial discrimination, for her, even if her illicit flirtation may compromise her message.

The fun does not stop there though. Much discussion about race nowadays is about unconscious bias. We think we are talking about camping. But really we’re talking about race.

Except this script flips the script again — and again. Those who resist the notion that the unconscious is doing anything the conscious isn’t, well, conscious of, insist that they aren’t talking about what they’re being accused of talking about, and they aren’t thinking it either, for that matter.

Underneath the camping, there is race. But underneath race, there is domestic conflict twice over. And, at the end, there is an invitation to smooth over all of the tension, of course, by camping. It’s too late by then.

The play is about, as many plays end up being about, its own language. It’s about whether people mean what they say and say what they mean, and the consequences that follow, which generally suggest we are all better off avoiding if not the truth then the candid expression of it. We trick one another as much as we deceive ourselves. Otherwise we wouldn’t make it through the day without wishing to leave our spouses.

Despite that, the story is not unduly didactic. In running time of under ninety minutes, it has the humor that is needed for the subject matter. The characters are real, if forced to be representatives of an unreconstructed ethnic nationalism. The Asian, indelibly Chinese characters, suffer from this more. They appear as assimilated as could be (she is native born), but they cannot help themselves in advocating for China. They seem to deny the possibility, for themselves, of being Chinese American.

The debate about camping escalates comically. It is a racial version of a MacGuffin, a device to drive the plot that need not have real significance, and it functions perfectly for the purpose. The Asian female, for example, is enthusiastic for the outdoors, as if she is trying too hard. She will mature into the “Tiger Mom” of camping, doing it to excess because it is expected. The truth is that in China, if one is to continue the generalizing that the conflict depends on, they are avid hikers. Yet until recently, with the achievement of critical mass as seen throughout national parks, Chinese on these shores did not have the safety of numbers to wander about in the wilderness. Chinese Americans, as distinguished from Chinese foreigners, residents rather than tourists, must be more wary about their surroundings. They are surrounded. That is what is unspoken. You could be shot.

The San Francisco Bay Area theatre scene does not lack for risk taking. The SF Playhouse enjoys a high success rate. Its artistic director, Bill English, promotes his stage as an “empathy gym.” In this instance, they have produced another hit.

Finally, the venue is worth mention. American Conservatory Theatre, the best established local company, renovated a defunct adult movie house, the Strand, in the mid-Market enterprise zone that City Hall has been promoting. The bright red building stands out. At its top, the punningly named Rueff — honoring the donors — shares an entrepreneurial spirit, hosting experimental work for smaller audiences. The Strand, in particular its Rueff, have become a place of adventure. They deserve patronage for the potential to bring back a neighborhood.

Harm had an abrupt end. It was becoming apparent that there was not likely a means out of the recursive loop of recrimination, racial and marital, even through a dream sequence. But when the merry-go-round stopped, I said to my wife, “What? Is that it?”

It isn’t that common to care enough about characters in contemporary drama, to wonder what would become of them. To yearn for closure is to praise the writing. That resolution eludes the personalities who are depicted as it does us. Yet in this instance, perhaps what is most compelling is that these four individuals stand in, as in the best art, for all of us.

CONVERSATIONS