Ear & Eye Thing: Paper Angels

May 1, 2009

Quick hit: Paper Angels, a play written by Genny Lim in 1979, is being staged by Direct Arts at University Settlement in New York. Here’s the promo description:

Set in 1915, Paper Angels explores America’s historic ambivalence over immigration through a group of Chinese detainees on Angel Island, the Ellis Island of the West Coast… A compelling and incisive script that not only probes racism, but also takes swipes at Confucianism and class discrimination, Paper Angels was last seen on the New York City stage in 1982 at the New Federal Theater. Dusting off this prescient gem two decades later amidst worldwide debates on immigration and after controversies surrounding detention of Muslims at Guantánamo, Direct Arts’ new production of Paper Angels will incorporate archival footage of Angel Island, a 2-piece traditional Chinese music ensemble, Chinese Opera, and an ensemble of 12 multi-ethnic actors including Obie Award winner Jojo Gonzalez (The Romance of Magno Rubio) as a long-time Californ’ caught in the net of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Lizzie and I saw it last night.  The strength of the script, the overall emotive power of the cast and the expert musicians made it a worthy experience.  Sure, the actors flubbed a few lines and there was a slightly amateurish tinge to the production. But overall, it was a solid and imaginative piece of theater.

There are two more showings, tonight and tomorrow afternoon.  If you are in the area, get to it.



  1. A couple of years ago on a whim I caught the ferry from SF to Larkspur in Marin. Beautiful day, fine air, as we passed Alcatraz and the northeast shore of Angel Island (with the detainee barracks) and docked within a few hundred yards of the basketball court at San Quentin, where men stood along the cyclone fence (topped with razor wire of course) and watched us pull in, I suppose for want of anything more interesting to watch. Peggy’s Shorter Antonio Gramsci: there are the Coercion Cops and the Consensus Cops. And it’s not as though the Coercion Cops were hiding themselves awa, is it.

  2. Rootless, I know that you are trying to make some point, but all I can think about is how nice a little boat ride around the Bay would be. The IKEA river taxi from Brooklyn to Manhattan doesn’t quite compare. Maybe the Lake Champlain ferry on a nice day.

    I am on the wrong coast.

  3. Well, yeah, you are. I just took the latest batch of blackberry ice cream out of the freezer, and the first cherries (Brooks variety, not the best but awful good) were at the market yesterday.

    Still it was kind of stark the way that short boat ride had three prisons in it. It’s one thing to know this stuff and another to have one’s nose rubbed in it.

  4. Buster just can’t be bothered with three prisons as long as the weather’s nice. But he will watch the stage adaptation in NY. Dustin and I watched it. Crazy, he had no idea about Angel Island before. Still, the play struck me as dated–so steeped in the we’re-not-sojourners-this-is-our-home moment in Asian American culture.

    Meanwhile, for some reason I can’t get your tirade about the insanity of Brian Wilson out of my head. Maybe the strange combination of vodka and Mormons has made it stick. For much of the Schubert symphony last night, I kept drawing similarities to “God Only Knows What I’d Be Without You.”

  5. Still, the play struck me as dated–so steeped in the we’re-not-sojourners-this-is-our-home moment in Asian American culture.

    I have two reactions to this.

    (1) Well, it is dated; maybe I just don’t mind that since I’m a historian. First, as a historical piece, I’m not sure that presenting this argument is inaccurate, as it certainly was made at the time. Second, it’s really only one character who makes this argument–the old man returning to California. I think he stands out because the actor playing him was the most competent of the bunch and his story seems central. But the younger immigrants simply point out that they too have the right to seek their fortunes.

    (2) I was actually struck by the ways in which the play clearly pre-dated the assimilationist 1980s–references to the geopolitical position of China and the rights of Chinese immigrants, a push for Chinese nationalism (“Where were you during the Boxer Rebellion?”), no apologies for “illegal” entry, no superfluous redeeming “buddy” relationship with a white guard/warden/missionary, etc. In other words, I imagined that it could have been much worse.

    As for your other comment, I have long believed that Schubert ripped off Pet Sounds. Once you compare, it’s just sorta obvious, right?

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