WHO KILLED THE DRAGON LADY
Angel Island Theatre Company
at Synergy Center
There was A Raisin in the Sun about blacks. There was The Boys in the Band about gays. These were plays that took their narratives from a particular segment of an American population characterized nonetheless by diversity, breaking with old stereotypes and stressing themes universal to all societies. “They’re no different than us,” audiences discovered, after which tribal barriers could only deteriorate. Recently, Asian Americans have found a herald in David Henry Hwang, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning M. Butterfly served to encourage other Asian American writers in the creation of drama dealing with that culture.
The latest addition to the small-but-growing repertoire of Asian American plays is Who Killed the Dragon Lady, a murder mystery farce by Seattle playwright Gary Iwamoto. The story begins with the murder of the ruthless Madam Carmen Yaki, aka the Dragon Lady, founder of a multimillion-dollar microwave-sushi empire, and follows the efforts of her survivors to inherit her prodigious wealth. These include Suki Yaki, her goody-two-shoes eldest daughter; Teri Yaki, her rebellious second daughter (“Didn’t it ever bother you that Mama named us all after food?” she asks her sister. “At least no one ever called you ‘chicken’ or ‘beef,'” Suki replies); Teri’s Caucasian husband, Conrad, a marine ecologist who loathes Carmen’s wholesale slaughter of sea life; Bento, Carmen’s profligate ne’er- do-well son; Sashi Mei, her illegitimate daughter by the ex-husband of Shoo Mai, the equally ruthless head of the rival Dim Sum frozen food corporation. Shoo Mai is understandably anxious to acquire the dynasty of the late Dragon Lady, and may or may not be her twin sister. (“But you’re Chinese!” protests the skeptical Suki. “I was adopted by Mormon missionaries,” Shoo Mai replies. “They didn’t know Japanese from Chinese.”) After the obligatory complications, during which the surviving siblings are bumped off one by one, the mystery is resolved in a flurry of twists and turns so swift that we leave the theater still befuddled.
When the only things wrong with a script could be repaired with one more revision, it’s still a good script, but this play badly needs that rewrite. While Iwamoto’s puzzle finishes with plenty of fast-paced flash, he starts too slowly to generate sufficient momentum to cover shortcuts like Carmen announcing to the audience at the outset, “My children can’t wait to get their hands on the family fortune,” or Teri saying of her older sister, “She’s not ruthless and conniving–not like us.” The murder-mystery genre is fundamentally one of plot rather than character, and the conventions of farce further eliminate the need for any extensive psychological depth, but even cardboard cutouts must have some plausibility.
Not that the play is without its moments: a line like Carmen’s “I didn’t raise my children to be kind to poor people. Poor people don’t eat sushi” is a small treasure, and her intoning in heavy dialect, “I was a graduate of UCLA” will remind those who are old enough of Richard Loo’s racist portrayals of innumerable Japanese generals (“Ah so, yan-gi peeg, you wahn-dah how I spik ingrish . . .”). Indeed, the entire Carmen character would border on racist stereotyping if one had never seen an authentic old-country Asian matriarch do her stuff. (That my old-country materfamilias is actually Chinese–Mandarin Chinese, yet–is a negligible discrepancy. Take my word–I know of what I speak.)
Given the flimsiness of the text, there is not much that director Jimmy Bickerstaff and his cast can do with it, but they give it their all. The pool of Asian-American acting talent is limited, however, making the level of expertise in that area indisputably uneven. Cheryl Hamada delivers a bravura performance in the double role of Carmen Yaki and Shoo Mai, at times switching personalities at ten- second intervals with only her face and voice to distinguish the two characters. As Sashi Mei, Lisa Tejero prances nimbly through the plot’s intricacies with the agility of a hyperadrenal unicorn, and Russell Kuzuhara makes Bento a lazy and handsome playboy in the early George Peppard mode. Barbara Sambol and Caroline Laut, as Suki and Teri Yaki, and Ted Altschuler as the latter’s Woody Allen-ish spouse, carry out their duties with good and workmanly skill, but they need to have more fun with their characters–as they probably will do, once they’re a little better settled into their parts.
In keeping with the Dynasty/Dallas paradigm that Who Killed the Dragon Lady parodies, costume designer Vicky Justis has given her bitch brigade a wardrobe so sleek and glamorous that an auction after the play’s run could probably fund Angel Island’s next production. The vivid colors contrast nicely with Bickerstaff’s bare, spare set, which nonetheless provides plenty of doors for murder suspects to pop in and out of. There is no credit given in the program for the sound design, which blends standard melodic punctuation with Japanese disco-dance tunes, and, in a clever inside joke, has Sashi Mei rehearsing an exotic dance to the strains of Kyu Sakamoto’s “Ueo Muite Aruko,” better known in this country under the title of–what else?–“Sukiyaki.”
Novelist Theodore Sturgeon has an axiom regarding the ratio of good art to total art produced–I believe he estimates it at 30 percent–which would seem to imply that the more of something there is, the more good something there will be. Who Killed the Dragon Lady is no masterpiece, but it may inspire as-yet-untapped Asian American talent to persevere in creating artistic expressions that reflect this still largely underrepresented people.