Come New Year, a play by a Singaporean writer will open on Theater Row in Times Square. A noir mystery set in 1947 Peking, Damon Chua’s Film Chinois was nominated for three Ovation Awards (the Los Angeles equivalent of the Obies) and won the prize for Best World Premiere Play. It will premiere on the East Coast as the opening show of Pan Asian Repertory Theatre’s 38th season. The production will begin previews on January 17, 2015 and run until February 8, 2015 at the Beckett Theatre.
The intriguing plot, from the press release: “Randolph, a fresh-faced American operative, has been sent to the imperial city on a secret mission. He makes progress until he meets a Chinese woman who calls herself Chinadoll, his would-be adversary and lover. Further complicating things are the amoral Belgian Ambassador and his current squeeze, Simone, a willful local songstress. As Randolph plunges deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness that was once the most beautiful city in the world, he finds his life imperiled, even as he begins to unravel the mystery of a piece of old home-made film, and a beautiful woman who seemed to have vanished into thin air.”
SP took the opportunity to ask Damon a few questions about his relationship to China, noir, and film.
SP: Congratulations on the off-Broadway premiere of your play Film Chinois! The play is a spy thriller set in 1947 Peking. You are a Singaporean who has lived for many years in the United States, first in Los Angeles, and now in New York City. What is your actual and imaginative relationship with Peking?
DC: Thank you. This production is an important step for my career and I’m hoping that things will turn out fine.
The funny thing is, I have never been to Beijing. I have been to many parts of China but not to the capital. My parents have been there, and I have seen many documentaries about Chinese history that prominently featured the city, but I don’t have an actual first-hand experience.
Nonetheless, this was exactly why I chose Beijing, or Peking (since the play is set in 1947). I wanted a city, post-WWII, that was undergoing political change, albeit in a more covert manner. I wanted to include elements of both the East and West. I wanted a locale where I could situate an American operative and a Belgian ambassador.
The reality is, in 1947, Beijing was just emerging from the Pacific War, with many parts of the city still in rubbles. But things were rapidly changing, for by 1949 the communists would have taken over. So 1947 represents the mid-point between the end of one war and the start of a new era. It was an uncertain time, making it the perfect “time and place” for my noir spy thriller.
I was also captivated by the visual idea of the hutong, the ancient Chinese alleyway, so prominent in the older parts of Beijing. I think these are analogous to the back streets and back lanes of big American cities, which were (and are) frequent settings for film noir scenes. The very first scene I wrote of the play was a scene set in a hutong.
Most of all, I wanted to reflect on the idea of a civilization that has been through so much and was now at a low point. While this is only alluded to in the play, the contrast between the Imperial-era Forbidden City and the devastated city that was post-WWII Beijing is vast. As a person of Chinese descent, I feel the loss. This idea of trying to recover something that has been lost propels the play.
SP: The title of the play is a nod to film noir. You also contributed a short story to the recently-published anthology called Singapore Noir (Akashic Books). “Saiful and the Pink Edward VII” is a delicious cat-and-mouse game. What draws you to noir as a viewer and writer?
DC: First of all, I love film noirs. One of my favorite movies is Sunset Boulevard. Another is Mildred Pierce. Noir stories are almost always about desperate people in desperate situations, facing difficult moral choices.
As a viewer/reader, I identify with the struggle the protagonist experiences as he tries to be good, or at least, to be as good as the circumstances would allow. The struggle can be ugly, but still very human.
There is also an underlying pessimism to the genre that I identify with. I don’t think it is because I’m a pessimistic person. I think the struggle itself is life-affirming, especially given the likely adverse outcome. I, like many film noir viewers and noir book readers, are drawn to such profound effort just to stay afloat, in spite of the odds. It is very primal.
As a playwright, I’m constantly seeking out interesting situations in which a personal goal can lead to a compelling dramatic conflict. Noir stories quite naturally lend themselves to such a conflict, not only involving matters of life and limb, but more interestingly, affairs of the heart.
It is the conflict between what we want and what we need that I’m drawn to. Such tension often results in truly captivating storylines, with the players tracing out genuinely intriguing character arcs. If I can hold the audience’s attention, even for a while, then I have done my job.
SP: Having produced many films and worked with several Asian directors, including Wong Kar-wai, you are now writing primarily for the stage. It is a creative decision mirrored by your relocation from LA to New York, from Hollywood to Broadway. How has your experience with film influenced your approach to playwriting? Do you expect film to continue to play a part in your dramatic works?
DC: This is a great question. I spent most of 2000s doing film, whereas this decade is mostly about playwriting. I think my film background infuses my plays with a greater visual sense, and certainly more kinetic energy. Film Chinois is a great example, but there are others.
I’m not into plays that are set in a living room with people sitting around talking. I’m into plays that zip across time and space, especially those that create visceral reactions and engage us in all our senses. Working in film showed me how scenes could be teased apart and then reassembled in new and interesting ways. I think that really informed my writing style and how I craft narratives.
Now that I’m a few years from the last film I produced, I would say that its influence has changed. Yes, I still watch a lot of movies; but I have been watching a lot of documentaries too. I think I’m moving away from fictional playwriting to a more documentary-style theater-making, in that I’m using real stories as my inspiration or starting point.
I think in the next few years, you will see plays from me that are based on real life narratives, but still served in a kinetic filmic structure. I think that is where I’m headed. It is an exciting development.
PAN ASIAN REP’s FILM CHINOIS runs January 17 – February 8 at The Beckett Theatre (410 W 42nd Street at Theatre Row). Performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 7:30pm with matinees Sunday at 2:30pm, and special Saturday matinees January 17 at 2:30pm. Tickets are $51.25. Contact Telecharge at 212-239-6200 or http://www.telecharge.com. For instructions on how to receive discounts for groups, seniors and students, and a schedule of weekday student matinee performances for middle and high school students, visit www.panasianrep.org or call 212-868-4030.
Damon Chua is a New York-based playwright, poet, fiction writer and producer. Originally from Singapore, Damon now calls Jackson Heights his home.
He is a proud member of The Public Theater Emerging Writers Group 2014-15 and Ma-Yi Theater’s Writers Lab in New York. His stint at The Public Theater is supported by a Time Warner Foundation grant. He is also the recipient of a 2014 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Currently published by Samuel French, Smith & Kraus and the Proscenium Journal, Damon received an Ovation Award for Best New Play and has obtained support from UNESCO and the Durfee Foundation. Damon’s plays have been staged in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and presented in several states. They also have been seen in London, Singapore and Toronto.
Damon is currently working on a full-length play set in 1960s and 1980s New York.