By John Lyle Belden
If an Asian playwright and Asian actors take on Asian stereotypes, is it still offensive? Is mocking these tropes this way self-effacing, creating awareness, or both?
You might find yourself pausing between bouts of laughter to consider these questions during Mike Lew’s comical cultural exploration, “Tiger Style!” on stage at the Fonseca Theatre, directed by Jordan Flores Schwartz.
Third-generation Chinese Americans, Albert and Jennifer Chen (Sean Qiu and Kim Egan) are the products of what could be called “tiger parenting,” pushed by their parents (Ian Cruz and Tracy Herring) to excel to the point of perfection at music and STEM careers – Albert is one of the best computer coders, Jen is one of the best oncologists. But instead of super-functional adults, they grew up to be self-aware Asian caricatures.
In the tech world, Albert is passed over for promotion because he’s too good at his job, while goofball slacker Russ the Bus (Jacob Pettyjohn) is better at socializing and getting along with everyone, which boss Reggie (Cruz) sees as more valuable for a supervisor. Albert is boggled at the fact that his deferential attitude, hard work and productivity didn’t pay off, and is appalled that even his Asian employer likes the white guy more than him. The stress literally eats him up inside.
Meanwhile, Jen is dumped by her do-nothing boyfriend (Pettyjohn as another slacker) because she didn’t turn out as “exotic” as he’d hoped. She spirals at the fact her super-structured life plan is out of whack, and that she can’t even keep a man who is way beneath her. The therapist she sees (Herring) doesn’t respect her need for an immediate breakthrough, so she and her brother resolve the only way to fix things is a hard reckoning with their parents.
“Secrets will be revealed that will threaten to tear the family apart” – or not.
I won’t say where this all leads, but Cruz also plays characters named “Tzi Chuan” (pronounced Schezwan) and “General Tso.” Herring adds a Chinese Matchmaker, and self-sacrificing Cousin Chen.
Lew crafted this play so that the more serious it gets, the more silly it gets, like life-and-death moments in a Monty Python sketch. In this, Cruz’s comic flair comes into full flower, as does Herring’s improv-honed skill for rolling through situations, smiling through the absurdity. As for Qui and Egan, rarely has naive overthinking been so entertaining. Pettyjohn committing to the White stereotype is just icing on the cake.
The lessons here, I suspect, are different depending on if you are Asian-American. Still, there is a lot to draw from this look at a culture both different from and intertwined with mainstream America.
Performances run through Aug. 14 at 2508 W. Michigan St., Indianapolis (just west of downtown), on the newly named C.H. Douglas and Gray Wealth Management Stage. Get info and tickets at fonsecatheatre.org.