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The Far Country

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - December 5, 2022

Eric Yang, Jinn S. Kim, and Amy Kim Waschke
Photo by Ahron R. Foster
In 1883, the poet Emma Lazarus penned these rather famous words, an open-armed embrace to would-be immigrants to America: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." A noble sentiment, to be sure, but one that lay out of reach to many even then. For instance, just the year before, in 1882, President Chester A. Arthur signed into law a little something called the Chinese Exclusion Act. That piece of legislation pretty much slammed the door on Chinese men seeking to enter the country, Chinese women having been more-or-less barred nearly a decade earlier. The Chinese Exclusion Act was made permanent and even more restrictive in 1902, just a few years prior to the opening scene of Lloyd Suh's history lesson-heavy new play The Far Country, opening tonight at the Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater.

If you have seen Suh's earlier play, The Chinese Lady, you may come to The Far Country expecting an evening in which history comes wrapped in witty satire and the interplay between its intriguing characters. But, for better or worse, what you get is perfunctory characters and stilted dialog wrapped in a history lesson. This is true despite the best efforts of its cast, which includes the always-enjoyable Shannon Tyo, who dominates the second act in a role that, unfortunately, is also sketchily developed.

The play bills itself as "an intimate epic," and, I suppose that's a pretty good description of its intentions. It opens with a lengthy interrogation scene, interesting in its own right as a kind of documentary theater. Han Sang Gee (Jinn S. Kim) is there of his own accord to gain official affirmation of U.S. citizenship. He is one of many Chinese men living in the San Francisco area who claim to have been born in this country, alleging that their documentation was destroyed in that city's 1906 earthquake. The questioning is lengthy and arduous, but Gee is well prepared with details of his life, occasionally aided by his interpreter (Whit K. Lee), who feeds him a few subtle hints about how to proceed. It is the tiny details of the procedure, including periodic racist remarks casually tossed off by the otherwise by-the-book lead interrogator (Christopher Liam Moore) that make this a riveting way to enter into the play.

Eventually, the interrogation ends, and while we are not entirely certain of the final decision, the next time we see Gee, he is in China, meeting up with someone from the village where he actually grew up, a woman named Low (Amy Kim Waschke). He tells her he is an American citizen, and that he is there to take her teenage son Moon Gyet (Eric Yang) back with him. Gee will pass him off as his own son and put him to work in his laundry, where the boy will be an indentured servant for many years. Given the harshness of life in the village, both Low and Moon Gyet agree to the plan in the hopes of a better future for the young man than he will ever have in China.

The Far Country continues in this fashion, with separate scenes about those who are caught between a rock and a hard place. Living in near anonymity, they are forced to consider every moment how to deal with their limited choices, either by accepting the dead-end brutality of rural village life, or by risking the harshness of life in America, a place where they are constantly reminded that they are not wanted and which may deport them at any moment. Leap forward in your mind to the present day and this country's current immigration policies and practices, and it is clear this is a story that has many faces and languages that continue to challenge Emma Lazarus's words.

As for the particular story being told in The Far Country, many years pass before Moon Gyet returns home for a short visit and, in a variation on the theme, repeats the scenario that led him to give up his own identity as a teenage boy. Thus, Yuen, Shannon Tyo's character, becomes part of the seemingly never-ending cycle.

Throughout the production, it appears that the playwright and director Eric Ting are pushing the boundaries of what it means to invite an audience to connect with the content. If you want to get something out of the experience, they seem to be telling us, you'd better be paying careful attention. Our "intimate epic" offers up a significant piece of history that you probably know next to nothing about. Listen, learn, and digest it all later.

The Far Country
Through January 1, 2023
Atlantic Theater Company
Linda Gross Theater, 336 W 20th St, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: