“Issei, He Say” depicts the tragedy of losses kept alive

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"Issei, He Say" is being presented by the New Jersey Repertory Company
World premier at New Jersey Repertory Company

Hatred can be passed down from generation to generation until its origin becomes lost in the mists of time. Hatred can be born as quickly as a sprouting weed from the pain of personal tragedy. Both of these forms of hatred are examined in Issei, He Say (or the Myth of the First), making its world premiere at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

"Issei, He Say" is being presented by the New Jersey Repertory Company
“Issei, He Say” is being presented by the New Jersey Repertory Company

Issei, He Say takes place in 1969 and follows 12-year-old Lucy Chu, a recent arrival in Canada from Hong Kong with her parents. The Chus struggle during this first year, running a failing store bought with their life savings and trying to assimilate into their Toronto neighborhood. Lucy, out of place and friendless, is bullied at school and can find no sympathy from her preoccupied parents. Their next-door neighbor, Mr. Yamamoto, is an issei, a first-generation Japanese-Canadian. Despite Mr. Yamamoto’s unfailing kindness toward the Chus, Mr. Chu responds with abrasive condescension. The Chu women begin to respond to Yamamoto’s advice and encouragement, but have to fend off Mr. Chu’s disapproval. The arrival of a letter from Japan triggers revelations of past personal hurts on all sides, leading to a stunning conclusion.

The quartet of actors in Issei, He Say is outstanding
"Issei, He Say" is being presented by the New Jersey Repertory Company
“Issei, He Say” is being presented by the New Jersey Repertory Company

Playwright Chloé Hung, herself Chinese-Canadian, skillfully captures the pain of being the first in a new situation and the sympathy one newcomer can feel toward another. She and director Lisa James are well served by the outstanding cast. The remarkable Stan Egi is a benevolent Mr. Yamamoto, wanting to ease the transition for his new neighbors yet repressing his own emotional turmoil. Christina Liang captures in Lucy Chu the emotional mix of a young girl beginning to make the at-times difficult transition from child to adolescent, loving yet beginning to question her parents’ ways. Kathleen Kwan and Fenton Li excel in illuminating such adult problems as dealing with a new language, a new culture, and a new country, struggling with hardships they never bargained on, and needing to blame someone — anyone — for their feelings of pain and loss.

The only quibble I found came in the play’s final scene. An older Lucy addresses the audience, summing up the effects of that first year in Canada. A gesture made by one of the characters, its meaning left for the audience to decide, adds an unsettling final note to the story.

As usual, NJ Rep’s scenic design is amazing and Jessica Parks’ work, given the small playing space and budget restrictions, is wonderful. While the side-by-side houses of Yamamoto and the Chus mirror each other, their front yards have a visual impact capturing the differences between the neighbors. Parks’ set is complimented by the lighting design of Jill Nagle.

This is a strong work, dealing with its characters honestly yet with a certain affection. Chloé Hung is a playwright worth following, and it will be interesting to see works by her in the future. As well, this show provides us with the pleasure of seeing an outstanding quartet of actors perform, both individually and as an ensemble. For these reasons, I suggest you visit the New Jersey Repertory Company’s production of Issei, He Say.

Issei, He Say (or the Myth of the First) is being presented by the New Jersey Repertory Company at the Lumia Theatre in Long Branch through May 20, 2018. For tickets and information, visit njrep.org.