The tragic 1982 beating death of Chinese-American Vincent Chin by two disgruntled, out-of-work Detroit auto workers set off a national Asian Pacific civil rights movement when the two murderers were let off with a fine of $3,780 and no jail time. Playwright Cherylene Lee traces the event and its aftermath from the point of view of Vincent’s mother, Lily (Beulah Quo), chronicling her evolution from submissive, postwar “picture bride” to outspoken civil rights activist. As directed by Tim Dang, “Carry the Tiger to the Mountain” proves a highly emotional but ultimately awkward and unsatisfying stage presentation. His hesitant staging and the disparate range of performance skills within the ensemble continually undermine the playwright’s intent.
Dang and choreographer Peter Kwong create a promising opening sequence featuring the entire ensemble, victims and murderers alike, caught up in a precise but sensuous tai chi exercise, accompanied by Miles Ono’s rhythmic pre-taped sound and David Cheung’s live rock percussion work. It is a telling visual and aural representation of the melding of Eastern and Western cultures, performed on E. Junior Urasaga’s imaginative open-platform setting. The rest of the production never matches the power of this imagery.
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Part of the problem lies in the playwright’s often undramatic and choppy scenic exposition, further complicated by the constant, redundant use of a huckster car salesman (Robert Greenberg) to hammer home the message that, in 1982, the beleaguered American auto worker, particularly in Detroit, was in a mood of smoldering discontent over what they considered unfair competition from the “Japanese car invasion.”
It is within this context that Vincent is confronted by auto workers Donald Evans (Barry Sigismondi) and Mark Stetz (Steve Humphreys), who, mistaking Vincent for being Japanese, bash in his head with a baseball bat. The actual murder is staged as a ritualistic blend of tai chi and dance, bathed in Jose Lopez’s surrealistic lighting. Dang’s continual use of the tai chi metaphor, however, eventually distracts from the horrific series of events that befell Lily after the murder.
Quo creates an appealing, fragile persona as the gentle Chinese wife and mother who places all her love and hope for the future in her 27-year-old son, Vincent (Reggie Lee). Quo’s Lily is at her best in soliloquy, reflecting on her life as an “arranged” bride to the much older David Chin (Benjamin Lum) and, later, as the adoptive mother of Vincent, whom she brought over from Canton when he was six. Unfortunately, Quo never achieves a believable rapport in her interaction with others. The flow and energy of the drama often becomes dissipated due to her conversational hesitancy.
There are performances that do hit their marks. Lee is perfect as the deeply emotional, highly effusive young man whose life is taken a few days before his marriage. Sigismondi and Humphreys are all too believable as the two blue collar lowlifes who are so lacking in humanity they cannot grasp the depth of misery they have caused.