A Comedy About Birth Search (wtf?)

First of all, thank you to all of you for the nice comments re: my blog anniversary! I’m sorry I took so long to post my thanks. To those of you who came out of lurkdom, I must confess that I, too, have been lurking on your blogs. 😉

**And now, here’s my review of The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow by Rolin Jones, a play whose main character is a 22-year-old Chinese adoptee. Who is an obsessive-compulsive agoraphobic. Who designs a robot version of herself that flies to China and meets her birth mother.

Critics have hailed the play as “hilarious” and “excellent.” A local theater is going to stage a production of the play, and they’ve asked some of the members of AAAW to participate in a panel about adoption after the performances. We’re all taking turns reading the script, and I got my turn last week. Upon hearing that this was a “techno-comedy” about a female Chinese adoptee, written by a fresh-faced recent graduate of the Yale School of Drama who is decidedly not female and not a Chinese adoptee–well, there was much rolling of the eyes.

Actually, though, I didn’t hate the play. I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it. Let me start with the good things. He actually manages to capture some of the painful words that adoptive mothers and their internationally adopted children can exchange. Jennifer and her adoptive mother, Adele, have a combative, complex relationship that I imagine looks very powerful on the stage. Also, the scene where the robot meets Jennifer’s birth mother is oddly touching in a way.

However . . . one of the biggest beefs I have with the play is on the first page–the cast listing. It states that:

The actor playing Adele [white adoptive mother] will also play Mrs. Su Yang Zhang [Jennifer’s Chinese birth mother]. The actor playing Mrs. Marcus [white adoptive father] will also play Mr. Zhang [Jennifer’s birth mother’s new husband]. The actor playing Todd [Jennifer’s white friend] will also play the boy [Jennifer’s Chinese brother].

When I read this, an alarm immediately started going off in my head . . . “WARNING! Yellowface alert!”

Meaning, “WTF, I’m sure that they’ll have white actors put on yellowface when it comes time to play the Chinese family.” (Indeed, the photos I’ve seen–while not indicating yellowface–show that Adele [and by implication, Su Yang] is played by a white actress.)

I mean, I guess Rolin’s trying to make a statement here about the universality of motherhood and all that. But I really dislike the suggestion these casting decisions make about adoptive families and birth families being parallel existences, like döppelgangers. Because they’re not. They’re completely different. Apples and oranges. Having a white actress in a black wig and heavy eyeliner with her eyes taped back is insulting. Have we really not progessed beyond Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s?

Adele and Jennifer have such a broken relationship in the play, that I can see lots of adoptive parents watching it and thinking to themselves, “Well, my relationship with my daughter is so much better than that. Jennifer only wants to search for her birth mother simply because her relationship with her adoptive mother is so fucked up.”

But again–it’s natural for adoptees to wonder about their birth families!!! Searching does not equal rejecting our adoptive families. You don’t have to be an OCD agoraphobic adoptee to feel fragmented and curious about your roots.

In the end, I found the play’s “zaniness” entirely too contrived (she builds the robot with parts she receives from the U.S. Department of Defense). And while the reunion scene between the robot and birth mother was somewhat touching, it was also too perfunctory and improbable. Also, Jennifer engages in a revolting form of prostituting herself by engaging in cyber-sex with a white Mormon missionary (stationed in China) in exchange for him tracking down her birth mother. (Is this what Daily Variety meant when they called the play “fantastical and funny”?? Yeah, self-exotification is a real knee-slapper.)

Anyway, feel free to weigh in with your thoughts. My next post will probably be regaling you all with stories from my upcoming wedding weekend in Omaha. I’m so excited to go to Omaha!! (Smacking forehead . . . Did I really just say that??) Ahh, Omaha–the land of legalized school segregation!



Filed under Updates

6 responses to “A Comedy About Birth Search (wtf?)

  1. Interesting… I’m now curious to see the play.

  2. i tried to keep an open mind while reading about this play – but then when i hit your “biggest beef” paragraph about yellow face… it really irritated me (as i’m sure it has for you already and other people who read your blog) that they let this white actress play the birthmom… not ok. i’m not familiar with the asian american actors/actresses groups/theatre troupes, but i’m sure there are PLENTY of talented and beautiful asian american women actresses who could have played that part…

    officially annoyed…

    but on a positive note, great entry, sarahkim 🙂

  3. completely and totally going to have to say: DITTO TO HEIDI. sorry, am not trying to be lazy, but she stole the words right out of my fingers…

  4. I am seriously ditto-ing Heidi (and, by association, Soon-Young), and also wondering aloud, how many 22-y/o Chinese adoptees are there out there? I’ve never heard of one that old. Perhaps the play was really supposed to be about a *Korean* adoptee, but somewhere along the line, the writer succumbed to the “all-look-same” midset, and decided, “Korean, Chinese, whatever. We’ll just say ‘Chinese,’ so not to get too detailed.”

  5. Ditto to you three (parkheidi, soon-young, and ji-in).

    As a European-American male I have to say how sad and unfortunate it is, in this day ‘n’ age (also pointed out by Sarahkim), to have those four people play the ethnic background of Chinese.

  6. Gar

    Yellowface? White people “playing at” being Chinese?

    And it’s what, the year 2006?



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