By Dana Zhang
Yu Ling Wu slips seamlessly into the roles she plays onstage. One moment, she titters among the audience, greeting friends, and the next, she is her mother, extolling the virtues of Chairman Mao. Accompanied by claps of thunder and flashing lights, this and Ms. Wu’s other frequent gags breathe levity into subject matter that elsewhere seems overdone.
Even Ms. Wu admits it. “Another typical immigrant story, right?” she sighs, after impersonating her mother yelling that she had it much worse as a child; walking barefoot to school, doing homework in the dark, and so on. The fortune cookies Ms. Wu gives out before the show, the red qipao she later wears; these elements are cliché but she knows that, and she knows you know. These pieces are a narrative shortcut and a joke at the same time. It is her characters’ heartfelt emotions that make this anything but a typical immigrant story.
By telling us about her mother’s life – her childhood in Taishan, her chance at wealth when offered the hand of a well-to-do Spanish gentleman, and her status as a respected OB/GYN in her village – Ms. Wu takes us on a journey that encompasses two generations. We laugh at her gags and anecdotes, such as when her older sister went up against an immigration officer. Later, Ms. Wu dances to a Cantonese hip-hop song to demonstrate how she and her mother wiped skid marks off the floor at Cornerstone Academy, where her mother worked as a janitor. Ms. Wu’s talent for impromptu jokes is used often and sometimes unexpectedly, which can create a bit of whiplash in tone from one scene to another.
As Ms. Wu tells us, she has fond memories of accompanying her mother to the academy and playing with classroom toys while her mother worked. All the while, Ms. Wu suspected that her family was not normal, or rather, did not fit the ideal of the American Dream. When Ms. Wu finally shouted at her mother for not speaking English, not finding a better job, and not doing what’s best for her family, it is chilling. One imagines a little Ms. Wu having imaginary tea parties with her toys, too ashamed to share her family’s living situation with other kids. All because she felt she was not what she was supposed to be, part of a successful family in the land of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Ms. Wu reminds us that we can either beat ourselves up over preconceived notions about the American Dream, and hate our parents for it, or, like Ms. Wu, create our own narrative about the unsung people left out of this dream. We can herald them as people who tried, like Ms. Wu’s mother, and Ms. Wu is proud of her for that.
“American Dream, The”
Written and Performed by Yu Ling Wu
Oct. 8 at 7:30pm
Director: Zishan Ugurlu
Photo, courtesy of the production
United Solo 2018
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
DANA ZHANG is a multimedia journalist versed in editorial, photography, and video editing. She writes about pop culture, the performing arts industry, and the human experience. Zhang graduated from New York University in 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and interned at Newsweek Media for a year while in university. Zhang is also an avid gamer and dancer.