In her intriguing, revelatory play A Deal, Zhu Yi examines the conflicts encountered by young, upper middle class Chinese in America. In their encounters here, they continually make “deals,” for good or ill. Whether they wish to remain in the U.S. or return home eventually, the social culture impinges on their souls. And straddling the difference in principles and values between Chinese culture and American culture can be problematic.
Indeed, the tensions and underlying stresses continually increase for those who would make their lives here. Must one relent and give sway to American lifestyles and principles if one intends to gain success in America? Conversely, if one cannot bend to the necessary changes, must one eat crow, turn tail, and go back to China? Notably, in every scene of A Deal, we understand the stakes. Zhu Yi’s work shines in its multi-layered complexity and heart-felt empathy. It speaks with currency for those travelers who wish to become successful in another part of the world and find it untenable.
Sardonic humor, thematic grist and conflict propel A Deal in brisk forward motion to an uncertain but hopeful conclusion for the protagonist Li Su (Wei-Yi Lin). Li Su, an artistically gifted twenty-something has completed her MFA in acting at Columbia University. Instead of pursuing a profession to satisfy her parents, Li Su embraces American individualism and autonomy. Though they have paid for her education and lifestyle, she intends to make it on her own. When she auditions for an acting role, she pulls out all stops. She fabricates her identity to obtain the part. Her assumed identity mirrors the stereotypical Chinese character she portrays in the play. This character symbolizes many negative aspects of Communist mercantile China.
Meanwhile, her parents travel to the U.S. with the intention of buying their only daughter a NYC apartment. Running into cultural clashes and fraud during the process, the Lis ((Alan Ariano, Lydia Gaston), make it to their daughter’s rented apartment. The reunion becomes fraught with underlying tensions. And the Lis discover the difficulties of negotiating the New York real estate market with the help of an old friend (Pun Bandhu), of Mrs. Li. During various hysterical and humorous moments, the parents learn about the U.S. and we get to learn about them. Through their humorous interchanges, we discover how the Chinese navigate money transference, the rising price of the yuan to the dollar, the effects of China’s rise in the world economy and more.
Nevertheless, this hysterical backdrop paves the way for the very real divergences between American lifestyles and Chinese lifestyles. We note that Li Su in her desperation to become a successful actress in America has already become acculturated to the force of Americanisms. Thus, the inevitable happens. Li Su unwittingly makes the choice to assimilate to achieve her goals. However, the sacrifice which Zhu Yi portrays as humorous, eventually carries disastrous consequences.
Zhu Yi has effected an intriguing climax. The conflict explodes between Li Su and her parents. They discover her false identity to secure her success in the Off Broadway production. Unfortunately, the media uses her false identity in sensational stories. Though her attempt to be someone she is not results in her celebrity as a social activist, her parents feel humiliated.
The offense lies in her rejection of them, her past, their goodness, and graciousness to her. Because they sacrificed and worked hard so she could achieve a higher status, they expect to proudly ride her coattails. Posing as an imposter, being used as a political tool against her own country is anathema. Notably, her father identifies her as a traitor to China. The Lis see her behavior as ungratefully selfish. And they cannot abide by this individual who once was their daughter. The question remains. Has Li Su truly become someone else? More American than Chinese?
Thus, what ensues is nothing short of a social, cultural and familial backlash against Li Su’s bid for independence. Li Su’s inner revolution pushes her to the brink. Sadly, the situation forces her to choose between leaving the dubious strides she made for herself in her career in the US and returning with her parents to China. Because Mr. and Mrs. Li have given her an ultimatum, to never see them again and stay in the U.S., or return to China to their subservience and support, Li Su struggles with the painful decision.
The social and cultural divide inherent between Chinese values and politics and American values and politics receives an important hearing in Zhu Yi’s work. The themes of what children owe to their families, autonomy, self-actualization, assimilation, and culture clashes strike with fervor. Zhu Yi employs ironic humor with aplomb and uplifts the reality of what it takes to achieve success as an artist who hails from another country.
Director John Giampietro aptly shepherds actors Alan Ariano, Helen Coxe, Pun Bandhu, Lydia Gaston, Wei-Yi Lin, Seth Moore to realize solid, believable performances so that we may empathize with their struggles. The humor reigns throughout. Yet, the final five minutes become poignant reminders that making one’s way in another country requires prodigious effort and sacrifice. It must not be viewed “lightly.” Indeed, those who wish to live and work here, should be honored, not vilified. The production is a must-see for its currency. It should be extended.
A Deal is enjoying its U.S. debut at Urban Stages (259 W 30th), until 10 December. It runs with no intermission and tickets may be purchased HERE.