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
"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
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. …