Bindi Kang*

Abstract: In this paper, I intend to offer a critical reading of the invisible yet biased representation of the Chinese American in Stephen Karam’s play The Humans. I argue that this play still portrays Chinese Americans as threatening “yellow perils” and “Fu-Manchu” figures to the family and what the family stands for: the U.S. nation. Additionally, I would like to investigate the representations of Chinatown and the Chinese community on the American stage, with particular emphasis on the play’s exploitation of noises, in order to provide a historical account of the transformation and duality of this specific theme in American culture: the exotic other and those threatened by this exoticism

Keywords: misrepresentation, “yellow peril” narrative, exoticism, noise

The 2015 stage play The Humans, by Stephen Karam, was a shining star both off-Broadway and on the Broadway stage. The piece is set during an Irish-American family’s Thanksgiving dinner in the apartment (which is located in Manhattan Chinatown) of the youngest daughter of the family. The drama portrays, delicately and in rich detail, the relations within the family. It presents the warm and caring connections between the family members, while also ripping off this pleasant veneer to reveal their undeniable problems, including: chronic disease, healthcare issues, unemployment, financial difficulties. These problems are so particular, yet also so universal, that they seem to symbolize, in the words of the New Yorker magazine, a “declined, middle-aged America.”

Video 1

The Humans by Stephen Karam, Clip 1 (Broadway-Chicago)

I would like to offer an alternative reading of the play to that reflected in the rave reviews in the New York press. I consider the drama to be guilty of misrepresenting Chinatown and the Chinese community (much as John Carpenter’s 1986 American fantasy martial arts film Big Trouble in Little China misrepresented the Chinese community in San Francisco). Opening the play with a forceful noise from above, the play begins with a negative acoustic representation of the Chinese community. This is in accord with the “yellow peril” narrative which endures on the American stage and screen. By offering noises as an orientalist “aural,” the play again duplicates a “hell” for the white, middle-class American family living “underneath” Chinatown, the exotic “other” which threatens them from above: “Are we in hell? / Yes, underneath Chinatown.”

Video 2

Big Trouble in Little China (1986). Kurt Russell comes to punish the mighty warriors

These lines are from Big Trouble in Little China, a film which tells the story of a white, male hero who goes to a secret, evil place underneath Chinatown to rescue a green-eyed Chinese girl from Chinese bandits who command mighty warriors. The film portrays Chinese characters in a highly stereotypical way, especially the Fu Manchu-like Chinese men who threaten the United States.

Among numerous movies which perpetuate such stereotypes, Big Trouble in Little China is the one which exemplifies most clearly the fear of Chinatown. From the beginning of the movie, Chinatown is portrayed as if it is an alienated and isolated land, full of evil magic. When we first see Chinatown it is in a narrow and dark street. An old lady is sitting on a balcony across the street chopping a whole chicken or duck. Green and purple light emanates from the top of some buildings, suggesting supernatural powers.

The next scene features two large gangs coming out from alleyways, wearing red and yellow headbands and carrying exaggerated bullets and knives. After a fight, the white hero discovers that his lover is held in an ancient Chinese monster’s palace and has been forced to marry the devil in order to grant him immortality. In the end, of course, in saving two Chinese women, the hero saves the world. This is typical of American cinema’s representation of Chinatown as a sinister, fearful place on which mysterious imaginings and exotic fantasies are projected.

Sixteen years later, the threat from the Chinese and/or Chinese-Americans was still very much present in American film and theater, albeit more subtle and less visible. The Humans (first staged in 2015) is a play that portrays an American family of Irish descent. It gained huge audiences, both off-Broadway (2015) and on Broadway (2016). It won the 2016 Best Play at the Tony Awards and was a finalist in the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.The Pulitzer committee described it as: “A profoundly affecting drama that sketches the psychological and emotional contours of an average American family.” The play was acclaimed as a modern classic the critics. Charles Isherwood of the New York Times declared it: “The finest new play of the Broadway season so far.”

Video 3

The Humans by Stephen Karam (Laugh Lines)

The Humans tells a story that could not be more “American.” The entire family gathers on Thanksgiving night in the daughter’s duplex apartment in Chinatown, New York. It is not very big, but much better than her previous living arrangement, due to the cheap rent in this particular location.

There are many sweet and fun moments during the family dinner. Drawn in rich details, the warmth and care of this family generate a benevolent atmosphere in the playhouse. The parents bring several gifts for their daughter, including an unnecessarily large quantity of batteries “just in case.” There are loving gestures toward grandma “momo” (who suffers from dementia and has to stay in a wheelchair the whole night).

We also witness an adorable family Thanksgiving tradition, in which they smash a small, pink candy-pig in a bag. However, beneath the comedy, there is a much deeper and darker drama. Revealing a “bleak assessment of American life” (Schulman), the play seems to hint at an external force, a pressure from above (as symbolized by the noise).

Video 4

The Humans by Stephen Karam, Clip 2 (Broadway-Chicago).
There is deep drama to be found beneath the veneer of family warmth in The Humans

The Humans actually opens with “a sickening THUD [which] sounds from above the ceiling” (Karam 2016: 7). Throughout the play, there are several occasions in which we hear loud, threatening footsteps and sudden, disturbing cacophony from laundry machines. The noises, which also parallel the tumult of family problems (aging, sickness, financial problems, etc.), point clearly and directly to the Chinese (Chinese-American) people living above them. When asked if they had complained about the noise, Brigid, the younger daughter who resides in the apartment, replies: “she’s a seventy-year-old Chinese woman” and refers to the elderly woman speaking Cantonese. Later on, when the family’s awkward Thanksgiving gaiety finally makes way for the broken reality underneath, the family’s disheartened conversation is soon, and sharply, disrupted by noises from the laundry machine next door. “God, who does laundry on Thanksgiving?” someone asks. “Chinese People!” comes the reply.

This moment is quite interesting and, even, bleakly comic. We are hearing complaints about the acoustic intrusion by Chinese people into a white American family living in Chinatown. The irony is that, more than a hundred years ago, this was a ghetto, intended only for impoverished workers from the Far East:

Over a century ago, Chinatown was described as existing in the very center of the great city of New York, a small Chinese empire, with subjects of this dominion scattered all over its suburbs by the thousands, all of whom give allegiance to the central authority which resides in Chinatown, to which they repaired for business or pleasure at short intervals (Beck 1898).

Due to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Chinatowns in certain major U.S. cities were mostly dominated by male workers. In these small ghettos, many diversions for bachelors thrived, from gambling and opium dens, to prostitutes. After the CEA was lifted, a large number of immigrants flowed into New York City, where they gathered in the Lower East area; the first significant physical expansion in NYC’s Chinatown (Li 2015: 1120-1).

In the new millennium, this “small Chinese empire” no longer exists as an exclusively Chinese community. Along with Little Italy, Chinatown has gentrified massively, due to its short distance from other social and cultural landmarks, such as Soho and Tribeca. It is now little more than a tourist attraction full of exotic restaurants, as well as a commercialized neighborhood with often young residents of many ethnic backgrounds.

Despite the substantial changes in the nature and composition of Chinatown, it is still represented as the stereotypical “other.” In old Hollywood movies, typically, a problem in Chinatown would eventually be fixed by a white hero, either by killing the evil underground leader or by punishing the head of a Chinese gang, as in the movie Year of the Dragon (dir. Michael Cimino, 1985). However, this is not the case in The Humans.

The noises in the play are disturbing and they seem to provide a target for blame. It is as if the sounds are the triggers that draw out the family’s crisis. Thus, an auditory social field of listening is created on stage; what Bourdieu calls, “a shared somatic environment or habitus” (qtd. in Kaplan: 277). To some extent, the passive state of “being disturbed” transforms into an active performance of “listening”; the noises produced by misbehaving Chinese neighbors provide a legitimate reason to not be happy, calm and “thankful” on Thanksgiving.

Video 5

A two-minute trailer that gives the atmosphere of Chinatown as seen through the eyes of those who have the power to solve the problem

In 2002, performance studies scholar Karen Shimakawa posited the idea of “national abjection” in performance (both in everyday life and on stage). In her book of the same title, she draws on Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection and applies it to the study of Asian-American performance practice. In her writing, abjection is both a state and a process; it is always in the process of being appraised and is doomed to be a dirty and filthy product. According to Shimakawa, the idea of Asian-American identity is a concept that has been jettisoned from the notion of Americanness; Asian-Americans are constantly in the process of being jettisoned, and, yet, at the same time, Americanness, as a social and cultural agent, maintains its self-consciousness throughout this practice of jettisoning. In the case of The Humans, the noises from above are the pollutant “other” that needs to be jettisoned in order to maintain a clean body of Americanness.

Looking back to the film Big Trouble in Little China, from the plotline to its visual representation, it is full of orientalist imagery. The film’s ending reinforces the narrative of the “yellow peril.” When the protagonist saves the exotic, green-eyed girl, after defeating the dark-power of the Chinese devil in underground Chinatown, the neighborhood is cleansed and safe, thanks to a Caucasian male hero.

Simplistic though the cultural messages of this 1986 film are, however, the 2016 stage play The Humans did not advance much further away from the orientalist gaze. It may be subtler in its manner, but it presents the same hell underneath Chinatown. Embodied in its acoustic representation—via the noises, Chinatown resides on a particular edge of America, of cheap-yet-gentrificating real estate; an exotic other which threatensfrom above.

Works Cited

“The 2016 Pulitzer Finalist in Drama. Finalist: The Humans by Stephen Karam.” n.d.

Beck, Louis J. New York’s Chinatown: An Historical Presentation of Its People and Places. New York: Bohemia Pub. Co., c1898. Print.

Isherwood, Charles. “Review: ‘The Humans’ Depicts a Family, and a Country, Under Pressure.The New York Times, February 18, 2016.

Karam, Stephen. The Humans. New York: Dramatists Play Service, Inc, 2016. Print.

Li, Chuo. “Commercialism and Identity Politics in New York’s Chinatown.” Journal of Urban History 41.6 (2015): 1118-34. doi:10.1177/0096144214566956.

Schulman, Michael. “The Decline of White, Middle-Aged America, Onstage.” The New Yorker, February 26, 2016.

*Bindi Kang is a Ph.D. candidate in Theatre Studies at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. She is also a lecturer (teaching fellow) at Lehman College, City University of New York. Her research interests include contemporary Chinese performance, digital presentation in contemporary performance and representations of Asian/Asian Americans on the American stage. Currently, Kang is working on her dissertation on performances in contemporary China. With educational background in theatre (M.A., SUNY Binghamton) and East Asian Languages and Cultures (M.A., Columbia University), she analyzes the tremendous changes of dramatic performance in China in both content and form, and their conversations with the ever-changing socio-political regime of the country from a cultural studies approach.

Copyright © 2018 Bindi Kang
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Creative Commons Attribution International License CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

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Noises from the “Other” and the “Above”: An Alternative Reading of “Yellow Peril” in The Humans
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