So what happens when people who are desperate to communicate with each other can't speak the same language?
Constant screaming, hysterical laughter, uncontrollable body language and lots of subtitles..exactly what was happening at Chicago's downtown Goodman Theatre when the hilarious new comedy Chinglish unfolded in front of a much delighted audience Wednesday night.
This world-premiere production of Chinglish marks the Goodman debut of one of the most extraordinary writers now working in American theater. Best known for his Tony Award-winning play M. Butterfly, David Henry Hwang explores the complex international culture-clash with incredible humor and insight in his first collaboration with the Goodman.
Acutely relevant to today's cross-cultural business climate, Chinglish tells the story of an ordinary Midwest American businessman, Daniel Cavanaugh, who trys to land a lucrative deal for his family's signage business in the provincial capital city of Guiyang in the midland of China. After traveling to Guiyang, Cavanaugh finds himself in the middle of ongoing obstacles from unreliable translators and cultural oddities, to confused relationships and a surprising turn of events.
Performed in both English and Mandarin with English subtitles, the comedy is full of misunderstandings and misinterpretations which reveal the daunting challenge of doing business in China, a country with completely different languages, cultures and ways of communication to Western countries.
During the Artists Talk before Wednesday's evening performance, Hwang spoke about his inspiration for Chinglish. Hwang explained, "I have been traveling to China a lot over the past five or six years. I realized that China and America are both incredibly interested in each other but neither really knows much about the other."
He continued, "And I started to think it would be interesting to write a play about how to do business in China and the important role that language plays in this process." Hwang hopes that the comedy will not only show how isolated we still are in the modern world, but also illustrate the importance of bringing the two cultures together.
When asked why he chose Chicago as the world premiere city for Chinglish, Hwang cited Chicago being one of the most China- friendly cities in the U.S. as just one of many reasons. As for his choice of the city of Guiyang in China, Hwang said, "It is a relatively smaller city in China which is a good comparison with Cleveland in the United States."
During the production, the team encountered many offstage challenges as well. Director Leigh Silverman, who directed Lisa Kron's Well on Broadway, said during Wednesday's Artists Talk, "The casting was an incredible challenge for us. It is very hard to find a white guy who can speak perfect Chinese and can also act. We spent one and a half years auditioning more than 100 people from the U.S., Canada, Hong Kong, Sydney and Beijing. But we are happy that we found the perfect one. " The Chinglish cast is the most geographically far-ranging in Goodman history.
In addition to the unique casting requirements, an extensive amount of research was necessary to achieve the high level of cultural authenticity in the play. Both Hwang and Silverman traveled to China many times and hired China culture consultants and qualified translators throughout the production process.
Suzanne Seed, a Chicago award-winning author, poet and photojournalist, enjoyed the comedy immensely. She told Xinhua, " It has wonderful pacing, the back and forth of the two languages, and the craziness of misconceptions. All the confusion is very funny but very hard to do. It is actually not just about the words and the translations, but also the attitudes behind the value systems and the relationships of the people."
Another audience member, Paula Giannini, enjoyed the show despite the incessant screaming. She said, "I found the play so well-structured, so clean and so right to the point. It is a very nice production."
Both Seed and Giannini agreed that the language and cultural misunderstanding is a universal theme that could happen at any country in the world.
Chinglish will be performed in Chicago's Goodman Theatre through July 24th. Established in 1925, Goodman Theatre has been a part of life in Chicago for over 80 years, each season presenting the work of an extraordinary group of local, national and international artists.
(Xinhua News Agency June 24, 2011)