Terrorism is put on trial in playwright Nickolas Vassili’s latest production of his play The United States of China. After public staged readings in December 2014, the play has been revised and will be presented in a fully-staged version at Hale’s Palladium.
The play centers around the trial of Miriam Hopkins, who had previously committed terrorism against America, and now is accused of doing the same against America’s new “owner,” China, after the United States failed to fulfill an accord to pay off its debt to China within two years.
According to Vassili, also a decades-long director who will also be directing this piece, The United States of China began as a kernel of an idea. “One day three-and-a-half years ago, I looked out on a street corner and saw a large group of homeless people living in ramshackle tents with cardboard mattresses and felt so disgusted that it set this in motion,” Vassili said.
Initially, Vassili’s creative process was difficult. “I did a lot of research about the Chinese judicial system and their prison system,” he said. “The writing process was slow and at times laborious, until the characters in the story began to come alive and from then on, it was a creative joy.”
The actors in the play have also enjoyed the process of rehearsal and discovery. Stephen Sumida, who plays the Judge and who recently retired as a University of Washington American Ethnic Studies professor, welcomed the opportunity. “Since I’m not dependent on professional work as an actor to support myself, I can pick and choose auditions I want to try,” Sumida said. “I chose to audition for Nickolas’s play.”
After performing in the 2014 staged reading, Sumida was pleased to see Vassili’s revisions to the play. “Now, in 2016, Nickolas asked if I’d return as the Judge this time in a fully staged, revised version of his play,” he said. “I agreed, with pleasure.”
Sumida said he believes his character gives the play balance. “The Chinese Judge in The United States of China interests me because he’s ‘dignified,’ to begin with, and he’s also silly,” he said. “He’s the comic relief in an intensely serious play, in how he enjoys his knowledge and boundless memories of American movies, TV shows, and bits of pop culture.”
But even the Judge’s humor carries an underlying current of seriousness in regard to the Unites States’ relationship to China. “In the play, he spontaneously interrupts the courtroom proceedings with his memories of movies and TV. Where’s the ‘dignity’ in this? His interruptions are references to cultural history that has become international, global,” Sumida explained. “His interruptions are like the references to historical precedents in Chinese and other Asian story-tellings and historical epics. This character is really a character. I like that.”
As the Judge, Sumida’s character oversees the entire cast of participants, including the audience as courtroom spectators who are privy not just to the legal proceedings, but also to the inner thoughts of the characters. “The actions committed by the defendant are of the past, and the final act of her punishment for her terrorism first against her America and American people and then against China and Chinese people is her having to dig up from her psyche, memories, and passions the reasons and motivations for those past actions,” Sumida said. “This is what the play ‘really’ is about: a severe self-examination that Vassili is urging us each and all to perform in our time in a nation wrenched by political polarization.”
Actor Cindy Chen, who plays the Stenographer, agreed that this play has motivated her to consider new viewpoints. “In a culture full of remakes, reboots, and other forms of essential plagiarism, this play is the most original, refreshing piece of work that I have ever been in,” Chen said.
Chen also said her character illustrates the balance sought by the play, to focus on both personal and global questions. “As the Stenographer appointed by the court in the play,” she said, “the difficulties that I struggle with as the character involve maintaining a professional demeanor under the law and keeping my own personal feelings to myself regarding the defendant in question.”
Likewise, Chris Wong’s character foregrounds the struggle between the order of large
institutions and the chaos of human motivations. “I play George Ming, the court administrator, who supposedly is in charge of the court, but things begin to unravel all over the place,” Wong said. “Technically, this support character helps provide information to move the plot along. But I get to chew the scenery and be a mad dog in just about every scene I’m in.”
Beyond the play’s focus on the relationship between the United States and China, there’s a sense from the artistic team involved that this play is a metaphor for today’s national and local power struggles, wherein artistic freedom of expression remains a key mechanism for resistance. “The play touches on uncomfortable, hot-button subjects like racism, terrorism, corporate greed, and a loss of national identity,” Wong said. “The arts are the last bastion of freedom and liberty.”
With the enthusiasm of the artistic team and success at raising over 50 percent of the production costs through an Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign, Vassili has further hopes for this play. “We’re doing a video,” he said, “and hope to get it to Hollywood as a feature film.”
‘The United States of China’ runs from July 7 to 10 at the Palladium at Hale’s Brewery, 4301 Leary Way NW, Seattle. For tickets and more information, visit http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2563208.