When you hear “Charlie Chan,” do you think of a Honolulu police detective with a penchant for fortune cookie proverbs in pidgin English, who was made into an American icon in six novels by Ohioan Earl Derr Biggers and portrayed in yellowface by mostly white actors, including Swedish actor Warner Oland (who also played the villain Fu Manchu), in dozens of films? Or do you think of Apana Chang, the erstwhile indentured farm laborer/cowboy hat-wearing Hawaiian police detective/paniolo (that’s Hawaiian for cowboy) who was said to have once single-handedly arrested 40 gamblers with nothing but his signature bullwhip?
Lucy and Charlie’s Honeymoon
Through 7/16: Tue-Wed 7 PM, Thu and Sat 1:30 and 7 PM, Fri 7 PM, Sun 2 PM; Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan, 312-337-0665, lookingglasstheatre.org, $35 previews, $45-$55 regular run
Well, aloha, pardner, because in Matthew C. Yee’s Lucy and Charlie’s Honeymoon, directed by Amanda Dehnert, Charlie Chan (played by Yee) and crew are all that and a country and western band too. Part concert, part family drama, part thriller, this new play is wacky, earnest, hilarious, and harmonious as it tracks the post-shotgun wedding hijinks of Charlie and Lucy (Aurora Adachi-Winter), wherein two “first-generation Asian American renegades” rapidly jump the line from petty crime to felony when they rob a gas station convenience store with a toy gun—and become minor celebrities when the video goes viral. Now Lucy and Charlie, who have already not become doctors like every other Confucius-respecting Asian American, are on the lam, taking a classic American road trip through the midwest and singing their faces off about it.
Cowboy hats, rhinestone fringe, fishnet tights, and drugs can’t hide that, beneath their devil-may-care long hair and good looks, Lucy and Charlie are secretly not very good as bandits and not so bad as humans. While taking a break at a rest stop on their journey, Lucy meets Bao (Harmony Zhang), who’s looking for her twin sister, who came to America via the not-so-secretly nefarious Miss Dusty Bunnies Maid Company, which has, incidentally, also brought in Bao, who is being minded by a clueless keeper named Gabriel (Matt Bittner). Horrified by what is probably (definitely) human trafficking and scarred by her past experiences with Martin (Doug Pawlik), a white boyfriend with an Asian fetish (the gas station video isn’t the first time footage of Lucy has broken the Internet), Lucy kidnaps/rescues Bao.
But run as they might, they can’t run from family, which includes Charlie’s little brother Peter (Rammel Chan) and his boss Feinberg (Mary Williamson), security enforcement officers who tackle crime with de-escalation tactics and smiles, and Grandma (Wai Ching Ho) and Uncle Jeff (Daniel Lee Smith). (Actually, anyone with an ounce of ambition could probably outrun video game junkie Jeff, who has overstayed his welcome home by a solid decade.) What will happen when they all meet in the cabin in the woods that Grandpa built with his own two hands?
It sounds like a tall tale when you try to retell it, and it is, in all the best ways. Backed by a gargantuan diorama of Asian and western memorabilia spilling from overlapping boxes (designed by Yu Shibagaki), everyone is charismatic, larger than life, and can beat you at karaoke, Nintendo, and probably kung fu.
And yet, while you’ll spend two hours laughing at the chaos, you’ll never lose sight of the dark side of the ’moon. Microaggressions mask racist ideas that even progressive community-based security officers who don’t believe in guns might have toward their coworkers. White dudes who view Asian women as sex dolls seek solace in eastern spirituality. Violence, submerged or evident, is enacted by those for and by whom the law was written, upon those whom the law punishes and does not protect: immigrants and outsiders. While Lucy and Charlie play at rebellion, Grandma reveals a secret from the past about the necessity of dodging the law to get by. Bao’s naivete and knowingness, her story, even her name (“Bao—like the bun!” says Lucy, so American she doesn’t know it means “treasure”) show that behind the silliness is a pure, raw will to survive.
So why not make a hero of the cowboy—always at home on the outside, maybe an outlaw but at least he’s free? “You do good things, you do bad things. You live, you love, you die,” says Grandma. “That’s so gangsta,” says Lucy, whose ruby-red platform shoes seem like one more reference to yet another American story, shimmering with every stomp as if to say, there’s no place like home.