Sunday, April 3, 2011

"M. Butterfly" and "Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven"

Right now, San Franciscans have the opportunity to catch a fabulous, coincidental and, sadly, all-too-rare double bill: Two great productions of plays by two of the most talented Asian-American playwrights—David Henry Hwang and Young Jean Lee—are running simultaneously. Seen in tandem, as I experienced them, they offer a stunning look at the way, for Asian-American, issues of race and gender often intersect—and even get conflated.

Custom Made Theatre Company presents Hwang’s M. Butterfly, which uses the opera Madame Butterfly to make sense of the notorious Bernard Boursicot incident (1983), in which Boursicot, a French diplomat, was found to be “inadvertently” conducting Chinese espionage for decades through his lover, “a male Peking opera singer whom Boursicot believed to be female.”

(Rik Lopes and Sean Fenton in M. Butterfly. Photo by Jay Yamada)

Crowded Fire Theater Company and Asian-American Theatre Company are collaborating on Lee’s Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, which defies easy summary, as Lee uses neither cohesive characters nor narrative plot. Her play is more a collage of jarring images (full review available here). But suffice it to say, her blunt and explosive writing about race exposes all that is insipid and insidious in plays like Clybourne Park (reviewed below).

(Katie Chan, Mimu Tsujimura, Cindy Im, Lily Tung Crystal, Josh Schell and Alexis Papedo in Songs. Photo by Dave Nowakowski)

Hwang and Lee typify generational differences in talking about race and gender: Hwang dismantles the male gaze by challenging it explicitly; Lee dismantles it by having her female characters appropriate it or ironically pander to it. Hwang, who wrote M. Butterfly in the early 80s, finds room for his ideas within existing dramatic structures (though he certainly makes them all his own), while the younger Lee flouts rules of form, believing that traditional narrative cannot escape the biases that historically governed it.

These two productions are done with elegance and artistry, and by small companies. It's so rare that I find performances, even in the Bay Area, that address Asian-American experiences. Let's hope that other companies start to follow these two's lead.

M. Butterfly continues (Thursday to Saturday 8pm, Sunday 7pm) until April 30 at the Custom Made Theatre Co., 1620 Gough St., San Francisco. Tickets ($20 - $28) at

Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven continues (Wednesday to Saturday, 8pm) until April 16 at the Thick House Theater, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets ($15 - $35) at

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