Charles Francis Chan Jr.’s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery is a mouthful of a title for a play, but fittingly so: the play itself is full to the brim with things – a murder mystery within a political satire within a love story within a family drama within a coming of age tale. I might have forgotten a few, but suffice it to say there’s a lot going on here.
Director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar, is a theatremaker not known for his minimalism. Like the other projects Iskandar has worked on — recently, The Mysteries, a six-hour telling of the bible involving 48 playwrights and 54 actors — this is an extravaganza of sorts, though at two hours and 30 minutes, relatively shorter than usual.
Iskandar likes his shows big, bold and, most of all, fun, so it’s no surprise that he was drawn to Lloyd Suh’s jam packed script: A hero’s tale, whose knight in shining armor is an idealistic playwright whose dragon is white supremacy. You read that right: Frank Chan (Jeffrey Omura), a college dropout in the 1960s desperately hoping to avoid the draft, is looking to single-handedly change the perception of Asian-Americans — not “Orientals,” as they’re still frequently called in this time period — by writing a convoluted commentary on racial stereotypes titled, of course, Charles Francis Chan Jr.’s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery. Chan, his spunky new wife, Kathy (Jennifer Ikeda), his brother (Peter Kim), his draft officer (Jeff Biehl), and his ex-girlfriend Suzy (K.K. Moggie) all step in to play the parts.
In between the real world action, we see that show unfold. Biehl dons yellowface to play the leading man, a detective who speaks in paradoxical pearls of wisdom and convoluted English, while Moggie wears whiteface to play Eleanor, a rich widow whose husband has been murdered. What follows is a perfect simultaneous send-up of orientalist tropes and pulp fiction, complete with comically timed thunderclaps, kung fu battles, and cartoonish characterizations (Kim’s turn as an emasculated husband is as hilarious as it is depressing). It’s a delightful feast on its own, rendered exquisitely by a bright cast that’s clearly in on the joke, but it succeeds even further in the context of Frank’s quest.
If Chan’s show is a grand commentary on racism, Suh’s is a grand commentary about grand commentaries on racism, and a smart one at that. He’s well-versed in the ideas and academic lingo of social movements, and, impressively, is capable of communicating them in a way that neither overwhelms nor condescends. Who knew critical race theory could be so entertaining?
Like Chan’s well-intentioned protagonist, Suh and the creative team here may have set their ambitions unrealistically high, but its hard to fault them for their exuberance when you’re so thoroughly enjoying yourself.