Not the Weakest Link

Review of The Commencement of William Tan at Yale Cabaret

For some, high school sucks. It’s the time of life when you can learn some pretty disheartening things, like maybe the girl of your dreams really isn’t the girl of your dreams, like maybe your best friend is a racist, and maybe you’ve been in denial all along about a big part of your own identity. Those are the sort of coming-of-age struggles facing William Tan (Eston Fung) in this likable comedy-drama from Don X. Nguyen, directed by Lauren E. Banks.

You don’t have to be a high school alum from the Eighties to appreciate the familiar sit-com elements that create the reassuring aspects of the play, but, if you are, William Tan will certainly jar you back to the heyday of teased hair and shoulder pads, on girls, and bad dance moves on guys. It’s the era of Ferris Bueller’s famous day off, and William Tan, as played by Fung, wears a suitable air of Matthew Broderick cluelessness and earnestness—particularly when trying to parse a poem for his English teacher.

 Eston Fung as William Tan

Eston Fung as William Tan

Because he’s an ambitious gymnast for the Lincoln High Links in Nebraska, William hangs out with the jocks at the school, particularly Dutch (Jason de Beer), the BMOC who, it will emerge, has issues with the Vietnamese guys, not from Lincoln, who hang out at the convenience store near the school. Thanks to a bit of relevant historical context from Guidance Counselor Ms. Chadda (Libby Peterson), we’re reminded of the mid-Seventies, when U.S. racists could be virulent about Vietnamese-Americans, whom they saw as virtually indistinguishable from Viet Cong, the “enemy.” Those days are long gone c. 1989, we might think, but they remain personally relevant for Dutch, who lost his dad in Nam, and seethes with the put-upon gripes of those who feel affronted by other ethnic groups.

What’s this got to do with William? He’s Chinese, so by the murky logic of white racism, whereby all Asians are related, he should be, in Ms. Chadda’s view, the guy to step in when Dutch and his cronies scrawl hate speech in the locker room. Meanwhile, William just wants to concentrate on his parallel bars and figure out how to talk to Gretchen (Tori Keenan-Zelt), the cheerleader (or Pom-a-Link) who has caught his fancy. Of course, he’s got a female confidante, the plain-Jane Betsy (not Bette) Davis (Baize Buzan), his chum who could be so much more. Buzan nearly runs away with the show since Betsy is more aware, clever and concerned than William, but making slow guys think fast is something the long-suffering sex has been saddled with since time immemorial, and she’s willing to call William out to wake him up to reality.

Nguyen’s play gets the high school dynamic right—in part because the story is based on events from the playwright’s past—especially how insular students can be. In minding his own business, William is typical. But the racial dynamic at his school and the expectations of well-meaning females such as Ms. Chadda and Betsy force him to reconsider his friendship with Dutch and the extent to which he is implicated in slurs against Asians. There’s also a nicely laconic confrontation between William and Vinh (Jae Shin), the leader of the Vietnamese kids, where reminiscences of smoking weed in middle school, together with Dutch, are interlaced with threats of a fight armed with knives and guns.

Helping to sell the comedy are occasional timely references and routines by the Pom-a-Links (Keenan-Zelt, Rebecca Hampe, and Cat Rodriguez) that feature radio hits of the day. How satisfied you are with the resolution of the drama may hinge on whether or not it seems fitting that William should have to make himself something of a sacrificial victim and how convincing his motivations are. Nguyen wisely stops short of a major soul-searching epiphany of racial consciousness on William’s part, but there’s a suitable moral in the fact that our hero does shed his assimilationist blinders and might even take an interest in China when he visits with his family after graduation. And that makes for enough of a commendable commencement.

 

The Commencement of William Tan
By Don X. Nguyen
Directed by Lauren E. Banks

Dramaturgs: Ashley Chang, Kee-Yoon Nahm; Scenic Designers: Dan Cogan, Jean Kim; Costume Designer: Edmund Donovan; Lighting Designer: Alex Zinovenko; Sound Designer: Fan Zhang; Technical Directors: Dan Cogan, Rae Powell; Choreographer: Matia Johnson; Fight Choreographer: Sean Patrick Higgins; Stage Manager: Steven Koernig; Producers: Sooyoung Hwang, Steven Koernig

Cast: Eston Fung; Baize Buzan; Libby Peterson; Jason de Beer; Jae Shin; Rebecca Hampe; Tori Keenan-Zelt; Cat Rodriguez

Yale Cabaret
November 5-7, 2015