Near and Far

Near and Far

“Decades after the closure of Angel Island Immigration Station, a park ranger wandering the second floor of a neglected wooden building on this islet in San Francisco Bay came upon something extraordinary. The lead paint in what had once been the Chinese men’s barracks had worn away, revealing hundreds of poems, painstakingly etched in Chinese onto the wooden panels that wrap the room.”

This note from the program for Yale Repertory Theatre’s production of The Far Country both literally and figuratively sets the stage for the story to come. Scenic designer Kim Zhou’s brooding set gives the audience the impression of being imprisoned in a gloomy, subterranean space, with windows and the suggestion of a nearby seascape just above and out of reach. Eventually, the carved poetry will appear on its walls. The poems will also sit at the emotional center of this 2022 play by Lloyd Suh, which earned a finalist nod for the Pulitzer Prize last year.

The Far Country recounts the little-told story of detained migrants who wrote the found poetry and of other Chinese men and women who came to America in the early 20th century, often as “paper sons”—would-be Americans with forged papers and fictionalized histories. “[I]f you could convince American authorities that you were either American-born or the child of American citizens,” the program explains, “you could be granted entry.” Both complicating and aiding their efforts was the fact that San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake had destroyed many official records.

This story—and the legacy of the many US government acts to limit and outright ban Chinese immigration, unless it served the nation’s labor interests—is an important one to tell. This is partly because it’s a history that has often been downplayed or skipped altogether and partly because, while the situation at our southern border today differs in many ways from the situation faced by Chinese immigrants at the turn of the century, it’s impossible to watch this production without thinking of the personal crises faced by Mexican and Central and South American migrants detained this very day. A hundred years from now, will their stories have been glossed over or skipped, too?

But while The Far Country knows whose stories it wants to tell, it doesn’t always seem to know what kind of play it wants to be. Two interrogation scenes mirror one another in Beckett-like circular dialogue. A mother’s difficult decision to send her son away from their impoverished farm in Taishan edges into melodrama. Like a Greek chorus, an ensemble of actors reads some of the detention center’s poetry aloud and tosses snippets of information from one voice to another, punctuating the recitation with the slap of bureaucratic folders dropped on the floor. A first encounter between Moon Gyet, a “paper son” returning home for a visit, and the forthright, practical young woman who will pay her way to become his wife plays more like romantic comedy.

I was reminded several times, as The Far Country unfolded, of Julie Otsuka’s 2011 novel The Buddha in the Attic, which recounts the story of Japanese “picture brides” brought to San Francisco around the same time. Otsuka tells her story entirely in the first person plural, beginning with the line, “On the boat we were mostly virgins.” Suh, too, often seems to be telling a collective story more than a personal one. The characters are mostly kept at an emotional distance from the audience, as if they aren’t individual characters at all but, rather, the representations of thousands more whose stories are much the same.

This universality makes sense. But it’s also harder for an audience to latch onto the humanity of a generalized story, which is why the appearance of Joyce Meimei Zheng as that young wife, Yuen, breathes freshness and vitality into the third act of The Far Country. Yuen is the one who, in various ways, will lead this story into the future: a vibrant 1920s San Francisco with a “Chinatown” designed to appeal to people who were not Chinese. Zheng’s comic timing and affectionate grasp of her character coaxed peals of laughter from a previously subdued audience. In the role of the resourceful Gee, the accomplished David Shih, too, delivered a striking performance as the spark that sets off the play’s chain of events—the need for each successive paper son to bring in another in order to pay his own debt of passage.

The Far Country isn’t a perfect play, but it’s one worth seeing. Put yourself in the capable hands of director Ralph B. Peña, immerse yourself in the brooding island prison, and take this journey.

The Far Country
through May 18 at Yale Repertory Theatre
1120 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Tickets $15-$65
(203) 432-1234

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images photographed by T. Charles Erickson and provided courtesy of Yale Repertory Theatre.
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