On June 12, local theatre company Pork Filled Productions staged a reading of a play by Yilong Liu entitled Good Enemy. Directed by Christie Zhao, this script-in-hand reading performance by actors took place at Theatre Off Jackson.
Good Enemy focuses on the journey made by Howard to visit his college-age daughter, which also becomes a journey back in time, where Howard is forced to confront his memories of his earlier years back in China.
Pork Filled Productions Executive Director Roger Tang reports that this staged reading is part of the company’s Unleashed. Staged reading program, which aims to provide development opportunities for Asian American theatre artists. “We gravitate toward this script because there are so many great Asian American scripts out there, yet so few of them have been produced in the Seattle area,” Tang said. “In fact, I keep a somewhat tongue-in-cheek list of top class Asian American scripts that have never had a Seattle production, and they include well known authors like David Henry Hwang, Qui Nguyen, Hansol Jung, Julia Cho and many others, which is a little embarrassing for an area where the population is 20% Asian American.”
This iteration of Unleashed will have a slightly different focus. “Previously, we focused on playwrights, but this year we decided to expand our focus a bit to directors, because new directors get very few chances to be seen and to develop their craft,” Tang explained. “And BIPOC directors get fewer chances, given that BIPOC led theatres make up so few of the theatres that still are around.”
Director Christie Zhao first learned about Good Enemy from friends in New York. “As I delved into the story, I became captivated by its exploration of the complexities within family relationships,” Zhao said. “Specifically, I was drawn to the father’s journey of opening up about his life before becoming a parent.”
This resonated with Zhao personally. “I haven’t seen my own parents for four years and have been reflecting on who they are as individuals, separate from their roles as my parents,” she shared. “It’s a process I’m still navigating, and this play offered a unique perspective on that journey.”
She was particularly intrigued by the play’s historical context. “Many people immigrate to America for various reasons, often driven by the political climate in their home countries,” she elaborated. “The play touches upon the offense of Hooliganism and the complex period following the cultural revolution, which is often overlooked.”
Zhao also appreciates the dual focus on China and the U.S. “The play sheds light on the ongoing struggles and oppression faced by individuals in China, as well as the Stop Asian Hate movement in America, particularly evident during the Covid-19 lockdown,” she said. “This relevance to present-day experiences makes it highly engaging for our audiences.”
But she says Good Enemy’s narrative isn’t simplistic. “It presents a raw and authentic perspective from the immigrant characters, giving voice to their personal experiences and emotions in both countries,” she said. “This nuanced portrayal allows us to delve into the complexities and struggles faced by immigrants, providing a rich and thought-provoking exploration that goes beyond stereotypes.”
To prepare, Zhao dug into both history and culture. “To truly bring the world of the play to life, I immersed myself in the era by diving into photos, music, and videos that served as references and inspiration,” she said. “I couldn’t help but get swept away by the historical events and names mentioned, like the offense of Hooliganism, Liu Shaoqi, the Cultural Revolution, and the vibrant underground club scene of the 80s.”
She sought to understand each character in depth. “I found myself marking up the script every time a character spoke about their family, childhood, and the unique items they carry with them,” she described. “It’s like piecing together a puzzle of their lives, connecting the dots to understand their backgrounds and motivations on a deeper level.”
Actor Owen Yen took this journey, as well, as he prepared to portray the lead role of Howard. “The most interesting thing about my character,” Yen observed, “is how he has changed over the years from an idealistic young cop in China to a cynical old man who is trying his best to connect with his American-born and raised daughter.”
Yen feels able to identify with many of the characters in the story. “My parents grew up in Taiwan during the 2nd World War when Taiwan was occupied by Japan, and also lived through the subsequent migration of the Nationalist government from China to Taiwan after the Communist revolution,” he said. “So many of these stories in Good Enemy resonated with the stories I was told by my parents when I was little.”
Although Yen is reading only one role, he is essentially preparing for two. “My preparation process has been unique in that I focus on spending as much time on the character I’m reading for, Howard, as the character I’m not reading for, Hao, my young self,” he said. “I feel that it is only by spending time being my young self can I truly understand the transformation and growth over the years to get to the person I am today.”
Like characters Hao and Howard, actor Yen also grew up as a first-generation immigrant. “I can identify with the characters’ struggles with cultural as well as generational gaps,” he said.
Also of note in the play is the concept of panda diplomacy. “It fascinated me to learn that countries would use pandas as a gesture of friendliness, and later they even started leasing them instead of giving them away for free,” Zhao mused. “The idea of treating animals as political symbols and state-owned properties struck me as both intriguing and somewhat absurd.”
Ultimately, this project motivated Zhao to reach out to her parents in China to gain insights into their experiences during the 80s. “In our conversations, I discovered that my father had a secret talent, as he used to sing at underground clubs and even achieved second place in a citywide singing competition,” she reported. “This play indeed opened my conversation with my family and I did get to know them a little bit better.”
Yen agrees that Good Enemy helps illuminate the changing perspectives that we attain over our lifespans. “When we are young, we tend to dismiss our parents and their life stories, even though there are so much we can learn, not only about them but about ourselves, from these stories,” Yen said. “Also, as I get older, as I am 58 now, and although I don’t have children my niece and nephew were born and raised in the US and are young adults in their late 20s, I also am beginning to understand more about some of the disconnects and challenges from the perspective of the ‘older generation,’ which has been quite eye-opening as well.”
In the end, Zhao believes that Good Enemy has the potential to make a profound impact on the Seattle community. “With its themes of identity, family, and the immigrant experience, it has the power to bring people from different backgrounds together and foster understanding and empathy,” she said. “The play’s exploration of different generations and cultures highlights our shared humanity and the universal struggles we all face.”
Pork Filled Productions presented the staged reading of Good Enemy on June 12 at Theatre Off Jackson, 409 Seventh Avenue South, Seattle.