`Woman Warrior' Finds a Voice

Article excerpt

THE WOMAN WARRIOR Based on two books by Maxine Hong Kingston. At the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

TALK!" yells the Chinese schoolgirl in white to the silent Chinese girl in a pink sweater. They are children of Chinese immigrants, facing each other on an imagined Stockton, Calif., school ground. "Talk!" yells the girl again. "Who are you? Where do you belong?" she demands. "I will make you talk!" The other girl cowers, but does not respond.

In the Berkeley Repertory Theatre world-premiere production of "The Woman Warrior," based on two books by Maxine Hong Kingston, this tense confrontation on a bare white stage brings three disparate elements together - the ingrained willingness of Chinese women to suffer silently, the brash cultural aggression of the new world, and the consequent personal confusion when the two conditions meet.

"The Woman Warrior," still a work undergoing minor changes according to Berkeley Rep's artistic director, Sharon Ott, pulls in another element: the impact of ghostly myths that trigger attitudes and fears. The play's subtitle is, "A Girlhood Among Ghosts."

As an autobiographical book, "The Woman Warrior" is the story of a woman coming of age at the feet of "Gold Mountain," the Chinese description for the United States and California, where tens of thousands of Chinese men and women worked as laborers and suffered blatant discrimination. The book won the National Book Critics Award for nonfiction in 1976 and has become an ethnic classic.

Kingston's later novel, "China Men," tells of the struggles of the men from China who foolishly sought their fortunes trying to reach Gold Mountain when opportunities in China seemed hopeless. It also won a National Book Critics Award in 1980.

Deborah Rogin, who adapted the books to stage, has made a coming-of-age story with equal parts robust, acrobatic musical spectacle (elements borrowed from Peking Opera) and family drama. The music, by Jon Jang and Liu Qi-Chao, is a delightful blend of American jazz and Chinese rhythms.

For a touch of mythmaking fantasy, two tall cone-shaped ghosts from the past glide across the stage with imposing elegance, offering choices. At other times, colorfully costumed acrobats twirl, spin, and fight with swords and sticks flashing.

The result is a kind of hybrid musical drama, or a family drama with music, and plenty of cultural tension between the new and old world, including misogyny. "Feeding girls is feeding cowbirds," says a male character, reflecting the common notion in China that boys are better than girls.

"The Woman Warrior" is energetic, freshly imagined, and an excellent tool to understanding how the Asian-American experience was a broth of spice, wit, tenacity, and disappointment.

More circular in structure than linear, the work seldom strays from the plumb line of theme and resolution. …