By Kevin Chang Barnum
“They have not seen the likes of you in color of skin or shape of body. It is yet to be seen what you are in America’s eyes.”
With these words, Learned Jack, a free, black Englishman, introduces the Siamese twins Chang and Eng to the racial climate they are about to enter in the UCI Claire Trevor School of the Arts’ production of “I Dream of Chang and Eng.” The play, which opened last Saturday, follows the true lives of the original Siamese twins, Chang and Eng Bunker, as they go from selling duck eggs in Siam, to finding fame and fortune as touring “freaks” in the 1830s. Directed by Ph.D. student Ricardo Rocha, written by Philip Kan Gotanda, “I Dream of Chang and Eng” explores the related themes of voyeurism, grotesqueness, and race in 19th century America. Chang and Eng, were not only the first Siamese twins American audiences saw, but sometimes the first Asians they had seen at all.
The play opens with the actors entering either side of the stage, each side outfitted with a makeshift dressing room. From there the actors start to chat with each other, admiring the set and preparing for their roles, showing the audience that they are watching a play within a play. The production even goes as far as keeping the actors in these open dressing rooms when they are “offstage” and not part of the scene. Look to the wings, and actors can be seen changing in and out of costumes. Though this conceit is never really made explicit and seems like could have been emphasized or explained a little more, it nonetheless serves as an important reminder to the audience: we are watching people perform as freaks just as 19th century Americans watched freaks perform. What, the play asks, is the difference between their voyeurism and ours?
If the audience is to understand the answer to that question at all, it is by understanding 19th century America. The play puts Chang and Eng’s journey into the racial context of the time period. Attitudes towards Asians change throughout the play, as Asians go from being seen as a comical curiosity to being stereotyped as “the Shylocks of the east.” Chang and Eng themselves are celebrated in the play for their sexual prowess, a focus that could be seen as a refreshing depiction of strong Asian male sexuality, or, alternately, as evidence of America and Europe’s fetishization of the exotic.
The otherness of Asians in the period is compared not only to the otherness of freaks, but also the otherness of blacks. The play’s antebellum setting, after all, means that Chang and Eng see how terribly America can treat racial minorities; if attitudes towards Asians are not yet fully formed in America, attitudes towards blacks are clear. And Chang and Eng, as businessmen, need to make a decision as to how to treat slavery, leading to perhaps the most tragic subplot of the play.
“I Dream of Chang and Eng” features many subplots, and that may be one of its biggest flaws. It cannot focus on one aspect of their lives, and thus there is no story arc that sustains tension throughout the play. This problem is ameliorated to an extent by Gotanda’s nonlinear narrative, but the jumps in chronology can also be a bit confusing.
Even if the play helps shed light on problematic American attitudes towards the “other” in the 19th century, however, it may also have some problems of its own. In particular, a printout provided with the program explains that the foreign dialogue in the play is in Mandarin, despite the fact that the characters likely did not speak Mandarin. This explicit acknowledgement of historical inaccuracy seems strange in a play that seems to ask you not to lump all Asians into one group. The play calls out historical attitudes towards the exotic while seeming to make the same troublesome conflations.
The use of Mandarin also seems unnecessary to the production and makes the dialogue feel stilted at times. Chang and Eng constantly repeat their English words in Mandarin, disrupting the flow of conversation and taking away from an otherwise charismatic performance from Edmund Truong as Chang and Kevin Lin as Eng. Other acting highlights include Xander Ritchey, who very believably channels P.T. Barnum, the founder of Barnum and Bailey’s Circus.
For whatever flaws it may have, “I Dream of Chang and Eng” does succeed in contributing to the dialogue on otherness in America. The play paints a complex portrait of the lives of two such “others,” and shows how they transcend their labels, each one an individual, even if Chang and Eng cannot exist separately.