Slavery has certainly rent the fabric of our society, but playwright Henry Ong wants us to remember it didn’t end with the Emancipation Proclamation. His new docudrama, “Fabric,” recapitulates in shocking detail the 1995 liberation of 72 Thai garment workers virtually chained to sewing machines in an El Monte, Calif., compound. Undeniable audience empathy is engaged mostly by the subject matter itself, inasmuch as the melancholy events are told with more passion than precision or artistry in the Company of Angels downtown premiere.
Lured out of Bangkok by extravagant promises (“In America, even the poor are rich!”), the immigrants are welcomed at the apartment complex-turned-sweatshop by entrepreneur Auntie Suni (Dian Kobayashi), delivering the house rules with the guarded genialty of Strother Martin greeting Cool Hand Luke. “If you follow them, you will be treated well. If not,” she hisses, “you will be punished.”
There’s a lot of Hollywood hissing, and Ong has certainly seen his movies: “It all began that fateful day.” “I would rather die than stay here for one more minute.” “We have to beef up security … I hear the INS is hot on my trail.” “It’s only the tip of the iceberg.” “How long were you listening there?” “Long enough.” Verisimilitude takes quite a hit after two hours of verbal cliches.
Sequences in which the workers respond to humiliation by tenderly bolstering each other keep drawing us back in, despite helmer Marlene Forte’s decision to indulge an acting style ranging from awkwardly earnest to cartoony.
Biggest undeveloped opportunity is Kobayashi’s stiff, stock “Mother Goddam” figure right out of 1940s melodrama. There’s nothing more chilling than a glimpse of a monster’s essential humanity (remember Ralph Fiennes in “Schindler’s List”?), but the Auntie role offers no understanding of how someone could rationalize such a hideous scheme.
There’s some delightful idiosyncrasy from Ben Wang as the state labor commissioner who kickstarts the investigation, and subtle playing from Jennifer Chang as Rotchana Chenchujit, the victim whose memoirs seem to have served as major inspiration. Most memorable are Jolene Kim as one who got away, and Jully Lee as the delicate Lampha, torn between comradeship and collaboration.
Ong’s instinct about this scandal’s dramatic possibilities is sound, and there’s complexity in the conception, as when he reveals how the Thai community’s tenuous position in the L.A. power structure led many to turn a blind eye to sweatshop servitude. Moving forward with a deepened approach to character in the script’s next pass could make a huge difference.