Review of Tanghalang Pilipino's 'Golden Child'

Review of Golden Child
By Walter Ang
December 2008 to February 2009 issue
Asian Dragon Magazine

In David Henry Hwang's "Golden Child," Chinese-American Andrew is visited by the ghost of his grandmother Ahn when he grapples with the dilemma of soon becoming a father, a notion he rejects. To help him accept and take responsibility for his soon-to-be-born child from his third wife, Ahn insists on telling Andrew the story of her own father, Eng Tieng-Bin.

Tess Jamias, the actress playing "ghost grandmother Ahn," transforms into "young Ahn," while Art Acuna, the actor playing Andrew, becomes Eng. The story thus takes us to when Ahn was still a little girl living in Fookien (Fujian), China in the early 1900s. Her father Eng returns home to his three wives after several years of doing business in the Philippines. Having been exposed to the "outside" world, he brings back a fascination with Western ideas such as individualism and Christianity. His idealism seems harmless at first. He shows them gifts like cuckoo clocks, waffle irons and phonographs. But soon he seeks to bring about change (such as eventually prohibiting foot-binding in his household) resulting in trouble for everyone.

Originally staged in the USA, Tanghalang Pilipino's staging brought over New York City-based Filipinos like director Loy Arcenas and actors Art Acuna and Tina Chilip. Chilip was recently featured in the short film "Bampinay," while both Arcenas and Acuna received special citations for directing and acting, respectively, from the Obie Awards for the staging of "The Romance of Magno Rubio." After the local run of Golden Child, Acuna will go on to join Pan Asian Repertory Theater's samurai version of Shakespeare's Macbeth.

Obligation and free will
Arcenas also designed the set and fills the stage with layers upon layers of sheer curtains that become translucent or opaque with the lighting design of Barbie Tan-Tiongco. It's a wonderful visual metaphor for the many "invisible" walls of social, cultural and familial obligations and norms that confine, restrict and confuse the characters.

The acerbic First Wife (Irma Adlawan-Marasigan) clings to tradition; the cunning Second Wife (Tina Chilip) plots to elevate her status by staunchly going along with Eng's proposed changes; the earnest Third Wife (Liesl Batucan) yearns only to be with Eng.

While Jamias employs body language and voice changes to effective use as a believable old woman and a ten-year old and Acuna gives a heartfelt performance, it is these three talented actresses that are a treat to watch. Each of the three gives her own character a different and convincing take. Thankfully, the script allows them individual moments to shine because the play ultimately is their story: how each wife responds to the inevitable changes that are throttling their way.

The results of these changes do not end too well for all, but it makes for strong tragic drama. Drama that is diluted by the framing device of ghost Ahn and her grandchild Andrew. In fact, it feels almost like a concession employed by Hwang to make the story of Eng Tieng-Bin and his family more accessible to American audiences. Even child Ahn, the titular "golden child," sometimes feels like a distraction to the advancement of the story. Even in a crucial scene where her feet are finally unbound (signifying not just the unbinding of her feet but how everything else starts becoming undone), the power of the scene quickly fizzles out because her coming into her own is not fully explored by Hwang.

Personal history
Nonetheless, weaving in and out of comedy to tragedy, Hwang ultimately paints a love story with a message of hope and redemption in the end. Chinoy audiences would have appreciated the production for its imagery, the sense of personal (cultural) history it evokes and, if not for anything else, the fact that stories of the Fujian Chinese (who ended up in the Philippines) are so rarely seen onstage. Note that Hwang is actually descended from a Chinoy family from Cebu and the play was inspired by his own family history.

Most Chinoys audiences who grew up here are sure to relate to issues raised such as respect for tradition versus openness to new ways of doing things and even Christian religious beliefs versus Chinese customs of ancestor worship. A similar topic that was raised in the recent staging of Koh Jun Eiow's "Ang Dalawa Niyang Libing" which tells the story of Chinese in Malaysia who convert to Islam for convenience in processing business permits.

The issue is, of course, not at all centered only on religion. Is it more of a general disregard for principles or just a strong affinity for adaptation-as-a-necessity to survive? Or is it more of the sacrifices one endures for love? Hwang's "Golden Child" can definitely serve as a starting point for further discussion.

The show was alternately staged in English and in a Filipino translation by Doreen Yu and Dennis Marasigan, a nice option for audiences as they were able to choose the language they are most comfortable with. The people who brought this play to Manila should start working on a Fujian Chinese translation as their next agenda. There aren't a lot of professional Chinoy actors but even an amateur group like Chancel Repertory could take a shot at it and provide a meaningful theater experience for the Chinoy community.