The Huntington Theatre Company At The Calderwood Pavillon
reviewed by Bobby Franklin
A few years ago the subject of Tiger Moms, a term used to describe the hard driving parenting style of many Asian American parents, became a hot topic of discussion. For many parents this method seemed harsh, but there was also some envy in seeing how much these children were able to accomplish. What wasn’t being discussed was the effect this type of parenting would have on them as they entered adulthood, the workplace, and while interacting with more diverse social groups.
Playwright Mike Lew takes on these issues and many more with great humor and depth in his original new play Tiger Style now presented by the Huntington Theatre Company.
Tiger Style focuses on siblings Albert (Jon Norman Schneider) and Jennifer (Ruibo Qian) who who have both excelled academically and artistically, but are struggling now that they have left the nest. They are living together along with Jennifer’s boyfriend Reggie (Bryan T. Donovan) who is ending the relationship as the play begins. Bryan is disappointed, to put it mildly, that Jennifer isn’t more dominant in bed and more submissive around the home, while Jennifer makes it clear how vastly superior she is to Bryan because of her academic accomplishments.
Albert is struggling at work; not because he isn’t competent, but because he has terrible people skills. Both brother and sister, while knowing they are highly skilled, are unable to function well when interacting with others. This is a failing they begin to see and decide to blame it, with some justification, on their parents.
This leads them on a journey that begins with a planned fight with their parents (Francis Jue and Emily Kuroda), then going “full Western” in a futile attempt to distance themselves from their culture resulting in Albert losing his job and Jennifer driving a therapist to the edge of insanity. Going “full Asian” with a move to China where they eventually end up in prison; it seems living under a totalitarian government is much like having a Tiger Mom only you never get your freedom. And finally returning home with many lessons learned and much to still deal with. As mom and dad explain, life is not easy. At some point you have to take responsibility for your own success and failure.
Mr. Lew has written a very funny and insightful play that is fast paced and filled with witty dialog, such as when Albert tries to curry favor with his manager at work who is also Asian by saying “Don’t be a self-hating Asian, be a self-nepotating Asian.” Or when Jennifer tells her therapist “I want to be the best at therapy”.
While the humor continues throughout the play there is also much that is very serious and important to be learned. When mom and dad talk about the sacrifices they and their parents had to make in order to succeed in their adopted country we get a better understanding of why they drive their children to be successful. Dad, in telling the story of the struggles of his parents says “I came from laundry people”. It is a line, coming on top of the narrative of their suffering and success that hits hard. Yes, it is up from the bootstraps talk, but it is also true.
love plays like Tiger Style for many reasons including the finely written humor, but mostly because the author is able to show us the struggles within a group of Americans that have to deal with their cultural heritage for both its strengths and its minuses as well. Mr. Lew does this without making victims out of his characters and without throwing a guilt trip on his audience, but at the same time not downplaying the racism and hatred that is much too often directed at those who are new to this country. It is a finely crafted work we all can learn from.
Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Calderwood Pavillon, South End, Boston
Through November 13
Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel
Box Office 617.266.0800