Frank Chin Drama Analysis
It may be said that Frank Chin has pioneered in the field of Asian American literature. His daring and verbally exuberant theater has asserted the presence of the richly unique and deeply human complexities of Chinese American life, and his work has brought this presence to the attention of the American public. Chin has sometimes been considered the John Osborne, or the angry young man, of his generation of Chinese Americans. His plays turn on themes of identity—anguished and indignant probings into ethnic identity, gender identity, and self-identity. In them, Chin mirrors the issues and realities of Chinese American life and history as lived in Chinatown ghettos; they seek to expose and explode generally held stereotypes of Chinese Americans as an emasculated model minority with a quaintly exotic culture. Painful truths told with exuberant verbal pyrotechnics are trademarks of Chin’s theater, and the characteristic gamut of his language ranges from black ghetto dialect to hipster talk to authentic Chinatown Cantonese (not Hollywood’s “Charlie Chan-ese”). He has criticized the false myths and the deadening stereotypes of self and ethnicity held by Asians and whites alike. At a time when it was ripe and necessary to do so, Chin proclaimed and proved that there is such an entity as Asian American literature. American literary history must henceforth reckon with that claim if it is to be true to itself.
Since the initial mark made by his two plays written in the 1970’s, Chin has not had any new plays published or staged. Chin has instead turned his very considerable creative literary energies toward writing novels, short fiction, juvenile literature, and essays of cultural criticism. Chin’s turn away from drama is in part due to a disappointment that an authentic Asian American theater (as he sees it) has not emerged. When he wrote his first plays, he had hoped that a genuinely Asian American theater would come into being, a theater that would resemble Dublin’s Abbey Theater of the early 1900’s and that would nurture genuinely Asian American dramatic talents just as the Abbey nurtured a crop of distinctively Irish playwrights such as Sean O’Casey, John Millington Synge, and William Butler Yeats. Chin’s two plays, nevertheless, are considered classics of Asian American literature, and they continue to be studied in the academy and to attract analytical commentary and debate. There have been many revivals of these plays, especially in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Chin’s plays center on a protagonist’s confrontation with the problematics of identity. The Chickencoop Chinaman is the more experimental in technique, with an almost cinematic use of montage, flashbacks, symbolic stage sets, and surrealistic, dreamlike sequences. The Year of the Dragon is more conventional, a drama of family and psychological conflict set in a San Francisco Chinatown apartment.
The Chickencoop Chinaman
The Chickencoop Chinaman is a play that treats the theme of identity through dispelling stereotypes and myths. The play is divided into two acts. Each act has a scene in Limbo (a surreal transitional time-space located between realistic time-spaces), a sequence recollecting a past obsession with a mythic figure (for example, the miracle-working Helen Keller in act 1, the popular-culture hero the Lone Ranger in act 2), and scenes set in the realistic location of 1960’s Pittsburgh, where the problem of the protagonist’s identity is worked out.
The play’s action centers on Tam Lum, a Chinese American filmmaker who is making a documentary about a black boxing champion named Ovaltine Jack Dancer, a boyhood idol with whom he once shared a moment of mystic brotherhood urinating in unison in a roadside bush. Tam comes to Pittsburgh from San Francisco in search of Dancer’s father, Charley Popcorn, who was a quintessential formative figure for Dancer and who now runs a Pittsburgh theater. Allegorically, Tam’s creation of a film about Dancer is an effort to express an identity for himself, and his search for Charley is his search for a father figure.
Before arriving in Pittsburgh, Tam is introduced in a Limbo scene on his airliner from San Francisco. The flight attendant is transformed into a Hong Kong Dream Girl clad in a drill team uniform and twirling a baton (hence an American dream girl, too). Indeed, the woman represents the American stereotype of Asian women—attractive, compliant, trained to give pleasure. Although Tam scoffs at the Hong Kong Dream Girl’s stereotypical identity, it becomes apparent that his own identity is problematic. For example, when asked what his mother tongue is, Tam can speak no Chinese, but instead begins speaking in tongues, using a startling array of American dialects. Tam also points out that Chinese American identity is not one ordained by nature; Chinese Americans are not born to an identity but must synthesize one out of the diverse experiences of living in crowded Chinatown tenements, metaphorical chicken coops. This opening sequence, then, poses the play’s central theme: the problem of stereotyping and identity.
In Pittsburgh, Tam stays with a boyhood friend, a Japanese American dentist named “Blackjap” Kenji. Kenji’s apartment in Pittsburgh’s black ghetto, Oakland, ironically underlines the circularity of Tam’s search (since San Francisco has its Oakland too), and its location within earshot of a railroad yard is a symbolic reminder of the Chinese American contribution to American history. Tam and Kenji, who grew up in the black ghetto of Oakland, California, talk in exuberant black dialect and express themselves by slapping skin; they have, to a great degree, adopted the style and expressiveness of a black identity.
Kenji’s ménage includes Lee, a part-Chinese woman who is passing for white. She has a young son, Robbie, by a previous liaison or marriage. Lee has a love-hate relationship with men of color, men whom she collects and then uses her whiteness and sexuality to dominate and intimidate. Thus, Lee lives platonically and parasitically with Kenji, in fact reducing him to a sexless host.
During their reunion scene in act 1, Tam and Kenji reenact a past obsession that they had with the figure of Helen Keller, imitating and parodying her. This may seem pointlessly cruel until one realizes that, in Chin’s play, Keller symbolizes the myth of the disadvantaged person who overcomes all handicaps and pulls herself up by her own bootstraps. In other words, she epitomizes what American society fondly thinks that every disadvantaged minority group can do for itself. When Tam and Kenji mock and demythologize the figure of Helen Keller, they are, in particular, rejecting the popular American myth that Asian Americans are a model minority capable of miracles of self-help.
Act 2 opens with another scene in which Tam and Kenji again recollect a mythic figure, this time the Lone Ranger. As a boy, Tam had fantasized that, behind his mask, the Lone Ranger was Chinese, and Tam had therefore identified with him as a heroic role model who represented the...
(The entire section is 2917 words.)