A Poignant Examination of Identity in "June"
Yilong Liu’s touching new play begins with an introduction to Afong Mu, the first Chinese immigrant brought to the United States to be exhibited or exploited as an exotic wonder. The play is an exploration (through fits and starts) of identity, connection, acceptance and one’s sense of home through the lenses of Don, a modern gay Chinese man who grew up in Hawaii in a traditional Chinese family and moved to New York City for college. Don returns to Hawaii after school in an emotional search for identity and a sense of home. The haunting Afong Mu serves as a kind of mystical backdrop as Don navigates this emotional journey and attempts to connect with his sister, father, and reconcile memories of his late mother.
Script-wise, we are presented with wonderfully poetic metaphors, resonant characters (particularly Don’s immediate family). However, as Don is emotionally sprawling, more focus and specificity is needed in the way that his memories and metaphoric speeches string together or at times we begin to see him as melodramatic and lose the overall emotional build. The script is exploration through vignettes and this approach works well (the translation scenes are fantastic!), but at times these vignettes are too many, and too short and in the second act we are faced with a series of quick emotional climaxes for Don which take power away from the spectacular final climax. And this final climax is beautiful. These culminating moments are gorgeously staged and bring the audience back to the strongest thread of Don’s emotional spiraling, that of late mother Yu Qin.
The cast plays the material with passion and commitment. The work here feels personal. Adam Brading does an admirable job of carrying us through Dom’s searching. I was particularly impressed by Leah M. Koeppel’s Jane. Koeppel has stage presence for days and Jane exudes a bubbling warmth and strength as she tries to guide her younger brother and process her own choices. Her vulnerability feels familiar and specific which makes her short monologue in the 2nd act particularly memorable. Qiaoer Zheng is stunning as Afong Moy and Yu Qin (the doubling is a strength of the script). The presence and singing of Afong Moy are truly mesmerizing. The night I attended, I witnessed audience members literally sit up in their seats at her appearance.
The design is simple but effective. Sarah Danvers’ set works well to transition us between locations with ease (pay attention to the floor design, metaphor!) and the other design elements work together effectively tying the Afong Moy and memory threads into Dom’s present day narrative. The props and costumes feel true to character and the personal photographs, grounding memories of family life, were of particular interest to audience members at intermission. The direction does much to activate the scenes and the use of a traditional Chinese opera chair and arch create lovely parallels between Afong Moy, Yu Qin, and Don’s connections to the idea of home. The use of the ensemble and theatrical conventions keep the story fresh and energized and the final climax is truly stunning.
The themes of connection, acceptance, and identity make June is the First Fall universally resonant but here we also get a glimpse of what these specifically mean for a queer person, a local queer person whose familial cultural traditions and religious beliefs don’t allow space to explore their identity. These stories from our community are vital in breaking down ignorance and developing empathy and acceptance. June is the First Fall is one such engaging, resonant story that is well worth the (albeit at times sprawling) examination.
June is the First Fall runs through December 9 at Kumu Kahua Theatre. For tickets, click here.
Written by Nathaniel Niemi.