`Woman Warrior' Finds a Voice

THE WOMAN WARRIOR Based on two books by Maxine Hong Kingston. At the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

TALK!'' yells the Chinese schoolgirl in white to the silent Chinese girl in a pink sweater. They are children of Chinese immigrants, facing each other on an imagined Stockton, Calif., school ground. ``Talk!'' yells the girl again. ``Who are you? Where do you belong?'' she demands. ``I will make you talk!'' The other girl cowers, but does not respond.

In the Berkeley Repertory Theatre world-premiere production of ``The Woman Warrior,'' based on two books by Maxine Hong Kingston, this tense confrontation on a bare white stage brings three disparate elements together - the ingrained willingness of Chinese women to suffer silently, the brash cultural aggression of the new world, and the consequent personal confusion when the two conditions meet.

``The Woman Warrior,'' still a work undergoing minor changes according to Berkeley Rep's artistic director, Sharon Ott, pulls in another element: the impact of ghostly myths that trigger attitudes and fears. The play's subtitle is, ``A Girlhood Among Ghosts.''

As an autobiographical book, ``The Woman Warrior'' is the story of a woman coming of age at the feet of ``Gold Mountain,'' the Chinese description for the United States and California, where tens of thousands of Chinese men and women worked as laborers and suffered blatant discrimination. The book won the National Book Critics Award for nonfiction in 1976 and has become an ethnic classic.

Kingston's later novel, ``China Men,'' tells of the struggles of the men from China who foolishly sought their fortunes trying to reach Gold Mountain when opportunities in China seemed hopeless. It also won a National Book Critics Award in 1980.

Deborah Rogin, who adapted the books to stage, has made a coming-of-age story with equal parts robust, acrobatic musical spectacle (elements borrowed from Peking Opera) and family drama. The music, by Jon Jang and Liu Qi-Chao, is a delightful blend of American jazz and Chinese rhythms.

For a touch of mythmaking fantasy, two tall cone-shaped ghosts from the past glide across the stage with imposing elegance, offering choices. At other times, colorfully costumed acrobats twirl, spin, and fight with swords and sticks flashing.

The result is a kind of hybrid musical drama, or a family drama with music, and plenty of cultural tension between the new and old world, including misogyny. ``Feeding girls is feeding cowbirds,'' says a male character, reflecting the common notion in China that boys are better than girls.

``The Woman Warrior'' is energetic, freshly imagined, and an excellent tool to understanding how the Asian-American experience was a broth of spice, wit, tenacity, and disappointment.

More circular in structure than linear, the work seldom strays from the plumb line of theme and resolution. While it spans a century of time, the girl's story is the heart, and the rest blends and flows around it. There are no loose ends here, no puzzling references to Chinese culture, no apologies for anything, no self-conscious soapboxing; just clear realization of good drama and staging to clarify the Asian experience with an all-Asian cast.

Lydia Look plays the daughter (i.e., Kingston), caught between two cultures. Yunjin Kim is her historical antecedent, garbed in warrior clothing, and stylized posturing. Each share the stage alternately between the crucible of family life in Stockton and the shadows thrown over them by the dreamy Chinese warrior myths. Both actresses are brilliant.

At the start of the play, the woman warrior, as a girl, has a list of grievances carved on her back to settle revenges against the family. Ott explains the symbolism. ``In China,'' she says, ``a lot of lessons hinge on what other people think of you. What is done to the group, or family, has to be avenged.''

In the play, a delivery boy mistakenly knocks on the family door in Stockton. The mother (played by Lisa Lu) concludes that it was a deliberate action, and therefore a curse is laid on the family by ``a dead white delivery ghost.'' The eldest child (the daughter) must go to the drugstore to get ``reparation candy to remove the curse with sweets.''

The girl is surprised when the drugstore clerk gives her candy simply to get rid of her. The girl's mother thinks the clerk ``understands'' curses and revenge.

The daughter feels anything but pride as the new and old world engulfs her. ``The play is about finding a voice,'' says Ott, ``about bringing three worlds together, the personal, historical, and mythical. And it is a story of success out of this struggle.''

WHEN the daughter's frustration and confusion are greatest, she confronts the girl in the pink sweater, yelling at her to talk, hitting her to the ground. Horrified at what she has done, the daughter falls silent and is confined to bed for a year.

The bed is symbolically suspended above the stage while her concerned parents are helpless below.

In bed she begins to write, to find her own voice. Beneath her, the warrior woman fights a triumphant and fierce battle against her adversaries. When the daughter finally speaks, she confronts her parents. ``I can't tell what's real,'' she says. The ghost stories from the past ``scramble me.''

Kingston's books, and ``The Woman Warrior,'' are the glorious unscrambling.

* ``The Woman Warrior'' continues at the Berkeley Repertory in Berkeley, Calif. until July 3. In September, it moves to the Huntington Theatre in Boston, and in February, 1995, to the Doolittle Theatre in Hollywood, Calif.

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