In a climate where cultural identity and representation are at the forefront of our global conversation, the Huntington Theatre Company’s (HTC) inventively-designed new production of Mike Lew’s “Tiger Style!” explores the tricky territory many second- and third-generation immigrant families face when confronting their heritage.
Set in affluent Irvine, California, the play revolves around siblings Albert and Jennifer Chen, who, tired of dealing with racial profiling, Asian-American stereotypes and what they believe to be impossibly high expectations from their parents, decide to embark on an “Asian Freedom Tour” to their family’s native China.
The dynamic set for this globe-trotting production was designed by Wilson Chin, an award-winning set designer who felt a personal connection to the play’s themes.
“When I was reading it, I was thinking ‘Oh my god, this play really speaks to me.’ It kind of says everything that I’d always been thinking but hadn’t even realized I was thinking,” said Chin, a second-generation Asian-American. “To me, it’s very personal. While working on it, I felt like I had such a duty to represent it well just because it spoke to me so personally.”
Many of the set’s details were inspired by Chin’s own experiences growing up in an Asian-American family. He said that, in plays like this, it comes down to the details.
“Even just in the design details, a lot of it is based on my own personal history,” Chin said. “When they go to their parents’ place, all of the details are based on my parents’ house as well as my aunts’ and uncles.’”
During the siblings’ tour, they realize that the grass is never actually greener as they are caught up in bizarre political intrigue. China, which at first seemed to them a paradise of efficiency and equality, quickly reminds them that they can’t escape their personal problems by simply moving. The challenge of presenting this onstage, Chin said, was what first stood out to him when starting work on the play.
“When reading the play, you get to understand what the point of it is and you go from that,” he said. “I knew that I needed to create two different worlds – Irvine, California and China – that were polar opposites, but at the same time, had a lot of similarities because the theme of the play is that, no matter where they go, they confront the same kind of situations.”
Lew’s play received its world premiere at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta back in September 2015, with an original set by Chin. The designer, who has worked on productions everywhere from Broadway to Toronto, said revisiting a play often allows the creative team to reassess their previous work.
“This time around, the playwright told us, ‘Guys, we need to make China much more realistic. It can’t be inviting and fun and exciting, I think it needs to be grittier. It can’t look like a place that would be fun for the characters,’” he said. “We reconceived China to be what it is now. It’s a subtle change but I think it’s important, dramaturgically.”
Chin explained the unique experience of returning to a dramatic piece, pointing out the benefits, as well as the challenges it presents.
“The second time you do it, you know the play a lot better. You know the bones of it. The more you work on a play, the more you understand its structure and how it works in front of an audience,” he said. “You get all of that but you also lose the discovery of it. You lose the kind of excitement of figuring out the structure of a show. The first time is probably more exciting and fun for me but the second time might end up being a deeper, more complete production for the audience.”
“Tiger Style!” is in performance at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts through Nov. 20.
Photo Courtesy T. Charles Erickson, Huntington Theatre Company