‘The Story of Yu-Huan’ Depicts Story of Woman’s Strength During Tang Dynasty

Yu-Huan, of the House of Yang, has been an undiminished subject of literature and fine arts throughout thirteen centuries. Her death marked the end of 130 years of unprecedented prosperity in China’s Middle Kingdom and a golden age of artistic outpourings. Her life story is the subject of “The Story of Yu-Huan” by Joanna Chan, to be presented by Yangtze Repertory Theatre of America May 30 to June 22 at Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave. (at E. 10th St.), directed by the author and choreographed by Ashley Liang.

This production will be Joanna Chan’s final directing project for Yangtze Repertory Theatre of America. Chan, whose theatrical career spans over four decades, co-founded Yangtze Rep and led it as Artistic Director for 22 years. She will hand over leadership of the company on July 1 to the three-man team of K. K. Wong and Wayne Chang as Co-Artistic Directors and Jason HaoWen Wang as Executive Director. Chan will continue her association with the troupe as Emeritus Director. She will continue writing for the theater, tend to publishing her 40 manuscripts, and resume painting.

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LR: Charles Pang as The Prince, Zhang ChunZhi as the Emperor, Ashley Liang as Yu-Huan. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Written by Chan in 1998, “The Story of Yu-Huan” centers on a woman who was born of royal lineage during the Tang Dynasty and trained as an artist, as were other women of her station. She lived in an era when extraordinary women, cultured and literate, played dominant roles in public affairs. At 15, she married Prince Shou, a son of Emperor Xuan Zong who, at a chance encounter, fell in love with his daughter-in-law and took her for his own. Unlike many of the women in the royal circle, Yu-Huan harbored no personal ambition and was submissive to her fate. In the tumultuous and desperate hour of General An Lu-Shan’s rebellion, toward the end of the reign of Emperor Xuan Zong, she was made to bear the brunt of the people’s rage and ordered to take her own life.

It was an age when, to maintain peace with warring ethnic groups (in today’s Tibet, Mongiolia, Manchuria and Xinjang), the Middle Kingdom dispatched beautiful, well-bred women to remote regions as trophies. They brought with them the beguilement of the arts and the pacifism of their new-found religion, Buddhism. Warriors were recruited from the “outer” tribes (who were often of different skin colors and languages) to contain their own people. With this, the Middle Kingdom was able to annex through culture and religion the fiercely independent states it could not acquire by war. One warrior, An Lu-Shan, was made commander-in-chief of the city known today as Beijing. He stalks this play like a Cassius; his revolt of 755 A.D. brought on the rapid decline of the Tang Dynasty.

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LR: Zhang ChunZhi as the Emperor, Ashley Liang as Yu-Huan. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

This new version of Yu Huan’s story will be performed in English and Mandarin and will be completely understandable to English-speaking audiences. It joins the body of the playwright’s work as an indictment of a cultural tradition not governed by law, where the most basic of all rights falls victim to the whims of a self-appointed few. In the Chinese tradition of playwriting, there is no psychological dialogue-the horror of the story is communicated in the facts of the play and in the characters’ actions. Throughout the play, Yu-Huan does not get to speak; her fate is hammered home as the decisions of her life are made for her.

The multi-ethnic cast of 18 includes its choreographer, Ashley Liang, as Yu-Huan (the title character), Charles Pang as the Prince, Zhang ChunZhi as the Emperor and Alexander Reed as General An LuShan. The ensemble includes Sheila Romo, Ave Cheung, Allison T. Chi, Lu Zhao, Ricky Lin, Alli Urbanik, XueMing Chen, Elisa Pupko, Sarah Young, Brandi Dyer, Jeremy Rafal, Gary Sugai, Bill Engst and Michael Lin. The ethnic mix of this cast is: five caucasians, one African-American, two Filipinos, one Japanese Hawaiian and nine Chinese, five from mainland China, two from Taiwan and two from Hong Kong.

Set design is by Edward Morris. Lighting design is by Christina Watanabe Original score is by Xiren Wang. Costume design is by Harrison Xu HaoJian.

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LR: Charles Pang as The Prince, Ashley Liang as Yu-Huan. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Playwright/director Joanna Chan returned early this year from directing a hugely successful production of her political drama, “The Soongs, By Dreams Betrayed,” for Hong Kong Repertory Theatre at the Grand Theatre at Hong Kong Cultural Centre. She co-founded Yangtze Repertory Theatre of America in 1992, dedicating it to works by and for Asian artists. Jan Stuart (Newsday) labeled “Fou Lei and Fou Ts’ong,” a true family tragedy of a world-class Chinese pianist which she produced and starred in, as “a jewel of theater craftsmanship.” She directed the Yangtze Rep production of “The Eternal Game” by Wang Wei-Zhong and “The Sound of a Voice” by David Henry Hwang at Theater for the New City in 1996. After seeing these productions, New York Theatre Wire critic Bert Wechsler wrote, “The company overall has superb production values….Joanna Chan’s direction was clear, uncluttered, exact, and always intelligent. Her pan-Asian Yangtze Repertory Company of America is a vital element of New York’s theatre scene. It deserves support and we eagerly await its next production.”

Chan has also headed New York’s Four Seas Players (1970-77, 83-92) and the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre (1986-90).

Yangtze Repertory Theatre of America has become New York’s most significant entry point for dramatic works from Chinese-speaking countries and a place of collaboration for artists from various parts of Asia on works by Chan and others. In 1997, Yangtze Rep brought Gao XingJian, the 2000 Nobel laureate in literature, to New York to direct his play “Between Life and Death” at Theater for the New City and for an exhibit of his paintings at Pace Downtown Theater. In 2005, Yangtze presented the New York debut of Beijing People’s Art Theatre, China’s most prestigious theater company, in “Teahouse” by Lao She.

Chan’s own plays include the political and controversial drama, “The Soongs: By Dreams Betrayed,” which she directed for Yangtze’s 10th anniversary in 2003 before the Hong Kong production early this year. Her “One Family One Child One Door,” a black comedy on the human cost of China’s one-child policy, premiered in 2001, was revived twice and was a finalist in the Jane Chambers Playwriting Contest. Her 1998 drama, “Crown Ourselves With Roses,” was selected as one of 23 most significant works in Chinese theater in the past 100 years for “An Anthology of Modern Chinese Drama” published by Columbia University Press in 2011. An English version of her 1985 drama, “Before the Dawn-Wind Rises,” was included in “An Oxford Anthology of Chinese Contemporary Drama” in 1997. She was commissioned by Hong Kong Repertory Theatre to write and direct “The Empress of China,” based on the first encounter of the American and the Chinese people in 1786, which received its premiere in Hong Kong in January 2011, followed by a New York production in June of the same year.

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Alexander Reed as General An LuShan. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

The nearly 70 productions Chan has directed include her own works and classics. Reviewing Chan’s “Oedipus Rex” at Sing Sing in 2006, Michael Millius wrote in the (Bedford, NY) Record-Review, “You might think I’d have seen some great theater over the years with my aunt, Michael Strange being married to John Barrymore, or my work with Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber as creative director of MCA Music. But still, even after all that, and more than half a century of theatergoing, I was not prepared for the experience of seeing a performance of “Oedipus Rex” by inmates at Sing Sing prison. When written by Sophocles circa 430 B.C. (and considered by the ancient Greeks to be his best work), the author couldn’t have imagined how his play would enjoy one of its finest hours 2,500 years later, being rendered by inmates in a maximum-security prison.”

In addition to works of theater, Yangtze has presented multiple dance productions, musical concerts and a succession of visual art exhibits through the years. In recent seasons, the company had begun a Staged Play Reading Series to nurture emerging Asian playwrights.

Theater for the New City has been home to many of Yangtze Repertory Theatre of America’s milestone productions, including its 1997 presentation of “Between Life and Death,” written and directed by Gao XingJian, the 2000 Nobel laureate in literature, and the 2001 production of a Chinese fable, “Butterfly Dreams,” directed by Wang XiaoYing, Deputy Director of China’s National Theatre.

This program is made possible by the New York State Council on the Arts with the suport of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York Legislature. It is supported, in part, with public funds from the New York State Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council.

“The Story of Yu Huan” will be presented at Theater For The New City (Joyce and Seward Johnson Theater), 155 First Ave. (at E. 10th St.), from May 30 to June 22, 2014.Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 PM, Sundays at 3:00 PM. Added performance Wed., 6/18 at 7:30 PM.Tickets are $25 general admission; $20 for seniors and students; Wed. and Thurs. pay-what-you-can. For tickets or more information call the box office: Smarttix 212-868-4444 or visit www.smarttix.com. You can also reserve by email [email protected] or call (516) 515-0630.