Last year, we spoke with Yun Theatre about their mission to highlight the intersection of Chinese and American identities, and now, the theatre company is back with a new show.  In July, Yun Theatre presents June is the First Fall by playwright Yilong Liu.

The play is a story of homecoming, in which the character Don travels back to Hawaii to reconnect with the father and sister whom he had initially left in order to find his true self as a gay Chinese man.  Playwright Liu explores ethnicity, sexuality, and culture, underscoring common bonds among characters who had wounded each other in the past.

Playing the role of Don is Youran “Sebastian” Wang.  “My favorite thing about Don is that he wants love, acceptance, and grace from his family, but he can’t bring himself to believe he deserves it,” Wang said.

“To prepare for this role, I am delving back into my own culture, reading Chinese poems, talking to my parents about Chinese histories and philosophies, writing Chinese characters, especially my own name, and reflecting on what it means to be a ‘good’ Chinese son.”

Wang is finding that Liu’s script leaves the actors a lot of room for discovery. “The biggest challenge for me right now is figuring out how to take on Don’s emotional journey because so much is left unsaid in the script about his childhood and what his life was like before he came out,” Wang explained. “To address this challenge, I’m drawing from hints in the script and my own life experiences.  I’m excited about collaborating with my colleagues to develop a continuously evolving on-stage family dynamic.”

His main counterpart onstage is his father, David, portrayed by actor Owen Yen. “Being the son of an immigrant myself, I can relate to David through my own father and many of my relatives,” Yen shared.  “He clearly loves his family yet he struggles with the generational and cultural gap that many of the immigrant families faces and is trying to do the best that he can under the circumstances.”

Yen finds that this father, who is struggling to hold his family together after the mother’s tragic passing, feels so real. “I am especially touched by his unwavering love for his wife and his silence strength in trying to make changes for the sake of his family,” he said.  “I am preparing for this role by looking back at my own family and cultural background and experiences, and trying my best not to ‘judge’ David but to simply understand his motivations and reasons for the things that he does and say.”

Keeping his portrayal as real as the script reads is Yen’s biggest task. “My biggest challenge is to try and avoid becoming a caricature or stereotype of the typical ‘Asian parent,’ but instead discover the depth and complexities of David as a unique and complicated character,” Yen said. “I am also adding this challenge to really focusing on the love he has for his family, which ultimately drives everything that he does and I believe as long as I can stay true to that, it will come across as genuine in my portrayal of him.”

Guiding the actors from the script to the stage are co-directors Christie Zhao and David Le. “I first encountered Yilong Liu’s play June is the First Fall through a powerful description on Yilong’s website, ‘What compels people to cross mountains and seas to another country, another continent, and another culture to find their true selves?’” Zhao said. “This question deeply resonated with me as an immigrant who left China at 18.”

The play’s themes of migration, identity, and family also struck Zhao, as she had just visited her parents after a four-year separation due to the Covid-19 pandemic. “Living in America for the past seven years, I felt ‘in between,’” Zhao shared. “Sometimes I even doubt whether my Chinese identity is fading away.”

But her visit home proved otherwise. “When you leave a place, you plant a seed, and when you go back, it has grown into a tree,” she said.

That the character of Don is gay was a strong draw for Zhao. “Growing up in a very heteronormative society in China, I had classmates who were queer but felt unable to reveal their true selves, especially to their parents,” she recalled. “Moving here, I encountered other Asian Americans who still face similar challenges.”

She notes that the struggle isn’t the same for all Americans, with Asian Americans facing unique concerns. “Coming out to a Chinese family isn’t a breach of religion, but a rejection of traditional family values,” Zhao explained. “This narrative is incredibly nuanced, and I’ve never seen a work that captures it so intimately and relevantly.”

As one of two directors for the show, Zhao appreciates the work of her co-director David Le. “One key strength of my co-director is his ability to connect with Don’s perspective as a son and younger sibling who left home, while I relate more from the family’s and the Chinese culture’s perspective,” Zhao said. “This complementarity enhances our storytelling.

Zhao is also intrigued to the play’s inclusion of Chinese mythology. “Yilong Liu often integrates Chinese mythology into his poetic storytelling,” she said, “and I am excited to see how we can spark the audience’s imagination with these elements.”

Assisting in bringing this dramatization to fruition off-stage is Audience Experience Director Tina Deng. “I hope to ensure that all audience members of June is the First Fall have a great experience, not only during the performance but from the moment they walk into the theatre,” Deng said. “This includes creating an engaging and welcoming atmosphere through thoughtful lobby design and interactive elements that set the stage for the themes of the play.”

Deng will not only design and decorate the theatre lobby in culturally specific ways but will also coordinate community events related to the show.  “I incorporate cultural elements from the Mid-Autumn Festival,” she said.  “We will organize two post-show talkbacks: one with the crew and production team, featuring the designers and actors, and another as a discussion panel where guests will engage in a roundtable discussion about queerness in Asian families.”

Yun Theatre will also conduct outreach beyond the show itself.  “We are holding a screening of Mama Rainbow, a documentary that interviews a pioneer generation of Chinese parents who support their gay children,” Deng added. “This documentary is highly relevant to the themes of the play, particularly the exploration of queerness in Asian families and its impact on parent-child relationships.”

And throughout these activities, the theatre company wants to hear from its audience in return. “Positive comments, constructive suggestions, and high satisfaction ratings will provide valuable insights,” Deng said.

Co-director Zhao agrees. “I’m also excited for the discussions we will have with the audience about family,” she said. “After reading the play, so many unresolved questions circled in my head. What is family? Can love exist in the family? Why do we still crave acceptance when every step is so painful? Are daughters taken for granted for taking care of the house? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I can’t wait to explore them with the audience.”

June is the First Fall runs from July 11 to 27 at Theatre Off Jackson, 409 Seventh Avenue South, Seattle. The Crew Talkback is on July 14, and the Discussion Panel is on July 21.

Previous articleThe future is Miraepa. Contemporary Korean poetry breaking traditions
Next articleIn ‘Mourning a Breast,’ author Xi Xi ruminates on human fragility and strength