We Two Are One


Show #17: I Dream of Chang and Eng, UC Berkeley Department of Theater Dance & Performance Studies, March 4.

Andy Chan, Josemari Saenz and Gwen Kingston in I Dream of Chang and Eng. Photo by Ryan Montgomery.

By Sam Hurwitt

UC Berkeley’s theater department has been lucky enough to have one of the most prominent Asian-American playwrights in the country in residence, Berkeley resident Philip Kan Gotanda, and he’s unveiled a new play as part of the department’s main stage season. I Dream of Chang and Eng comes just a couple months before another Gotanda play, Love in American Times, has its world premiere at San Jose Rep. What’s striking is that while the play for the large regional theater is an intimate romantic comedy, the college production is a dizzying three-act historical epic with a cast of 19.

Chang and Eng Bunker were the original Siamese twins—in fact the reason why conjoined twins are called Siamese twins in the first place. Joined at the sternum and the liver, these half-Chinese brothers from Siam (now Thailand) toured the world in the mid-1850s as a “freak show” attraction, taking control of their careers and negotiating an unusually good deal for themselves, and settled in pre-Civil War North Carolina, where they married two white sisters and had 21 children between them.

In the Cal production directed by department chair Peter Glazer (author of Woody Guthrie’s American Song), there’s no attempt to make the actors actually look like conjoined twins. They don’t look alike, and the two are connected by a simple red belt and they’re seldom if ever pressed right up against each other. Sometimes they even detach themselves and stand apart from each other, occasionally wandering to opposite sides of the stage. It’s understood without stating it that this temporary separation is strictly metaphorical and that the actual brothers are still attached, but it’s not exactly clear what these separations symbolize.

Lydia Tanji dresses the twins in a variety of memorable getups from gold suits to schoolboy outfits. Eng (Andy Chan) is sensitive and serious while Chang (Josemari Saenz) is a more freewheeling man of voracious appetites for liquor, women and experience of all kinds, and hilariously blunt about it.

The play jumps around in time, using the older Chang and Eng on their “1869 Old Friends Tour” to England with P.T. Barnum (Mark Hinds). By then the two aren’t speaking to each other, using Barnum to convey messages to each other like spatting sitcom parents.

There’s a very funny (and very broad) scene in which the young brothers are summoned before the King of Siam (DeWayne Spalding), who introduces them to his “trophy wife,” Anna (Chelsea Unzer, posing like a spokesmodel). The King and I references are pretty clever, even if the historical Anna Leonowens didn’t arrive in Siam until 30-odd years after Chang and Eng left—but when the king calls for a “photo op” with a handheld camera that hadn’t been invented yet and people sing Cole Porter songs that wouldn’t be written for another century, it’s fruitless to quibble about anachronisms. A comically agitated First Minister (Alex Lee) is all set to have them executed as a two-headed demon unless they prove themselves useful to the king by cooking up an impromptu prophecy.

The play is less a linear story than a series of encounters that don’t necessarily hew to chronological order. Captain Robert Hunter (Evan Bartz) offers to take them to America to become big stars, and they haggle a much better deal from him than he’s offering. On the journey overseas, sailors/lifemates Good John and Learned Jack (Alex Boozer and David E. Moore) teach them to cuss and to beware American racism. “It is yet to be seen what you are in America’s eyes,” says Jack, the British son of an emigrated African-American freeman, who won’t set foot on US soil. Once Stateside, Captain Hunter signs them over to Susan Coffin (Devon Roe) and her husband Abel (Boozer). Susan is a piece of work. High-strung and xenophobic, she calls them “it” and considers them her property, treating them little better than poorly trained animals.

With probably the most convincing British accent in the show, Gwen Kingston exudes jaded charisma as a diplomat’s wife who introduces the twins to a number of bohemian vices in London: cognac, cigarettes, absinthe, and even a menage a trois, although the twins can’t really help that. She also introduces previously unexamined notions of secrets and selfishness that plant a seed for the discord that will eventually grow between the brothers.

The question of intimacy comes up again when they marry the Yates sisters, who are notable in how natural and neighborly they are with Chang and Eng. Although Addie (Dasha Burns) seems not to have a care in the world, which makes her an appropriate match for Chang, Sallie (Unzer) frets about the necessity of having another man in her marriage bed, and her mother (Kingston in an immense fat suit) bellows about “orgies!” The brothers demonstrate a talent for one of them zoning out to allow the other to be “alone” that may or may not be a put-on.

There are all manner of dreamlike images and interesting artistic choices in the production. At one point the ensemble sways their bodies as if embodying a river, until you realize that they’re actually representing bobbing bodies floating in the river during a plague. Chang’s daughter Katherine-Joseph (Chelsey Holland) sits and watches the play from the sidelines, wandering through the stage only very occasionally. Of the brothers’ 21 children she’s the only one with a significant presence, although all the children are listed by name at one point. The irony that Chang and Eng had slaves is pointed out, but their sons who fought in the Confederate army are omitted. What makes Katherine-Joseph stand out is her poor health, but for someone so tacitly omnipresent, she doesn’t do much in the play.

A horse-headed dancer shows up from time to time and seems to be quite ominous, but my only guess at what it might represent is an actual horse the brothers fight over when they become alienated from each other.  What exactly sets them at odds is still a little vague in the play, seemingly coming down to some disagreements about domestic arrangements.

The show is three hours and 15 minutes (with two intermissions) and really doesn’t need to be.  A few scenes, particularly with the “real Chinese” woman with bound feet (a haughty Dominique Brillon) who serves as another sideshow attraction, may not be necessary at all. There’s a particularly drawn-out introduction to sideshow life with people in elaborate costumes doing lackluster circus acts. Even some of the best scenes, such as their London adventures, seem to go on a little long. Part of that is the script and part of it is that in Glazer’s staging the actors really take their time with the dialogue. The many pauses don’t come off as missed cues so much as a leisurely pace, but even so, it could be tightened.

One major theme of the piece is how successful the Bunker twins were at taking control of their own careers and making a life for themselves in the antebellum South. It turned out to be to their advantage that there weren’t a lot of Asian immigrants around and people didn’t know what to make of them, because they weren’t black and weren’t American Indian. Things would not have gone nearly as well for them if they’d come along a generation later, when Congress was passing laws specifically to restrict Chinese immigration. “They have never seen the likes of us in skin or shape,” Chang and Eng say.

Theirs is a fascinating story, and Gotanda’s take on it is more fascinating still. Its dreamlike narrative still feels a little shaggy-doggish and could stand some further development, but in a way that’s part of the magic of this student production. It gives you the sense of seeing a pretty remarkable play in an early stage or being born.

I Dream of Chang and Eng plays through March 13 at Zellerbach Playhouse, UC Berkeley. http://tdps.berkeley.edu

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  1. Caron Dann

    3 / 13 / 2011 2:38 pm

    I was interested to read your review. The play sounds unusual and there is quite a body of creative work about Chang and Eng, including a novel, God’s Fool, by Mark Slouka (2002). I’m puzzled by the references to Anna Leonowens, however. As you say, she was not in Siam until more than 30 years after the twins left. When they left, Rama III ruled; when Leonowens arrived in 1862, King Mongkut (Rama IV) was on the throne. It’s baffling that the character of Leonowens is as a “trophy wife” to the king, unless Gotanda is making a comment about Hollywood’s invention of a romance between the two and the West’s assumption of superiority. The romance angle is fictional, but because it is part of the plot in a number of films and in the stage play, many people in the West believe it to be true. By promoting this view yet again, Gotanda is also promoting a story that many Thai people have found insulting. The King and I and the 1999 film with Jodie Foster, Anna and the King, remain banned in Thailand. Many Thai critics have also objected to the portrayal of their revered King Mongkut as an amusing but tyrannical caricature. Mongkut was one of the best educated leaders of the world in the 19th century, spoke several languages including English and was a scholar of astronomy and other scientific languages. He was responsible for starting the modernisation process in Thailand which his son, Chulalongkorn (Rama V), continued.
    Though I understand poetic licence in creative works, I would have thought Gotanda, who is credited with creating many works featuring Asian Americans, might have been a little more sensitive to the real story than this. Even if he is making a comment about the assumption that there was a romance between the two, it will go over the head of most of the audience, because the Hollywood and Broadway treatment of the story is so influential. It will serve only to further that erroneous idea created in popular culture. It would be fascinating to hear Gotanda’s reasons for writing the play in this way.


    • Sam Hurwitt

      3 / 13 / 2011 9:07 pm

      It definitely seemed like a bit of poetic license for satire’s sake–both the characters of the king and Anna are entirely ridiculous in Gotanda’s play, and they only appear in one scene. It just seemed like poking fun at the one thing about 19th century Siam that people in the States think they know, but really don’t.





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