Lloyd Suh’s Play Explores the Horrors of the Other Ellis Island

And you thought Vito Andolini in “The Godfather Part II” had it rough. When this little Sicilian kid arrives at Ellis Island, all they do to him is change his name to Corleone and quarantine him for a few weeks. In “The Far Country,” the new play by Lloyd Suh that opened Monday at the Atlantic Theater Company, the young Chinese immigrant Moon Gyet arrives at Angel Island in San Francisco Bay and is kept there for 17 months while he is repeatedly interrogated about his birth.

The island immigration station was the process point where approximately 1 million immigrants, primarily from Asia, where once detained, inspected and questioned. A similar immigration station on Ellis Island processed approximately 12 million immigrants. Those arriving at Angel Island had a tougher time of it due to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and the interrogation process could be not only intense but cruel with long, inexplicable delays. Moon Gyet (Eric Yang) has left China to be an indentured worker in a San Francisco laundry run by Gee (Jinn S. Kim), who was also born in China but has won his U.S. citizenship by fabricating a story about his being born in America. Gee knows how to work the authorities, and he is now offering Gyet a new identify, as his son, so he can also immigrate.

There are two powerfully written, exquisitely performed scenes in “The Far Country.” For much of Act 1, we are told the story of Moon Gyet’s 17-month detention on Angel Island and how the young man comes to discover, read and take some small solace in the poetry scrawled into the walls of this prison by previous detainees, many of whom would be returned to China despite the long and arduous ordeal. The scene is enhanced by a series of interrogations by authorities who try to discredit Moon Gyet’s false claim that he is the son of Gee. It’s maddening because the examination includes questions about how many steps there were at Moon Gyet’s school, his home, his neighbors’ homes. Who remembers such stuff? Only those who are coached and fabricating a story would have the answers.

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Beyond the interrogation process, this scene is not really dramatized in the usual sense. Rather, Moon Gyet and two other immigrants (Jinn S. Kim and Whit K. Lee) speak directly to us about their horrendous experiences, which quickly turns into something that tops anything imagined by Franz Kafka. Especially poignant is the survival of the poetry that miraculously managed to outlive the detainees who wrote it. Jiyoun Chang’s lighting of Clint Ramos’ impressive set imbues the moment with breathtaking beauty.

In Act 2, Moon Gyet returns to China, where he takes a wife, Yuen (Shannon Tyo), not out of love but to secure another indentured servant to help pay off his own debts. This business transaction is a stark study in survival, enhanced by the amazing performance of Tyo. She is the kind of actor who beguiles through a minmalistic approach. Her voice, gestures and manners are deceptively small. Rather than overwhelming us, she is that magnet that draws us to her character. We come to her, she doesn’t come to us.

Beyond these two remarkable scenes, “The Far Country” runs into problems of tone and narrative. An interrogation scene between Gee and the American authorities (Christopher Liam Moore, Whit K. Lee and Ben Chase) immediately takes on a sitcom humor that runs counter to everything that follows. A reunion scene between Moon Gyet and his mother (Amy Kim Waschke) bogs down into a discussion of honor, which is odd coming from a woman who sold her son into indentured servitude. It is also unclear which identity the young man is attempting to sell. And when the play awkwardly leaps forward to Yuen’s life in San Francisco in the 1930s, it is not clear which character the double-cast Jinn S. Kim is portraying.

Eric Ting’s direction is effective when the play is on track. When “The Far Country” goes awry, he leaves his audience lost in the San Francisco fog.

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