Theater Review: THE FAR COUNTRY (Berkeley Rep)

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by Chuck Louden on March 19, 2024

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


We’ve all heard stories about coming to America through Ellis Island. We’ve read the books and seen the movies set in the early 1900s about the immigrants sailing over the Atlantic Ocean, traveling in steerage on a packed ocean liner. We’ve seen the smiling faces of hope as the ships sail by the Statue of Liberty. Having been processed, the immigrants — “new” citizens — emerge, suitcase in hand, anxious, optimistic and hopeful at the start of a new life promising opportunity.

Feodor Chin, Aaron Wilton, and Whit K. Lee

However, a lesser-known part of history is about the West Coast immigration experience. It’s a far darker tale minus the hope and promise of a better life.

Feodor Chin and Aaron Wilton

Following his examination of anti-Asian policy and sentiment in The Chinese LadyLloyd Suh brings us his poetic and lyrical play The Far Country, which opened last Wednesday at Berkeley Rep. It concerns the Chinese immigration experience in the aughts following the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which strictly limited the number of Chinese people allowed to enter the United States. The Angel Island Immigration Center, not far from where this play is having its West Coast premiere, opened in 1910 and over 175,000 Chinese passed through during the 30 years it was open. If a person was fortunate enough to make it through the intense interviews — intended to prevent illegal entry into the USA — they could then spend months or even years on Angel Island in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions until they were allowed to enter San Francisco.

Tess Lina
Tess Lina and Tommy Bo

Gee (Feodor Chin) arrives at Angel Island and is interrogated with Gestapo-like methods by the American inspector in full uniform (John Keabler). Through an interpreter (Aaron Wilton) Gee struggles to remember specific details about his family and background, but manages to make it through. With hard work and perseverance he starts a laundry business in Chinatown. A decade later, with no family to rely on, he returns to his home village in China. At a poor working farm, he asks Low (Tess Lina) to let her son Moon (Tommy Bo) pose as his son and come back with him to America to help him with his business.

Tommy Bo
Tommy Bo, Sharon Shao, Whit K. Lee, Tess Lina, and Feodor Chin

Despite the hope of a better life in America, there is a cost to get there. Individual identity is vanquished. There are extravagant fees, which basically means a life of indentured servitude in America until the debt is paid. Moon makes the deal, but his time in Angel Island is long and drawn out, lasting 17 months.  The conditions are comparable to those of a concentration camp. Many of the people cannot endure the grueling process and are sent home. Years later, Moon returns to China to visit his mother but more specifically brings back a wife, Yuen (Sharon Shao), and the cycle continues. Whit K. Lee and Jonathon Rhys Williams round out the cast in supporting multiple roles playing guards and fellow detainees

Tommy Bo and The Cast
Tommy Bo, Sharon Shao, and Whit K. Lee

Wilson Chin‘s wide minimal set, dramatically and evocatively lit by Minjoo Kim, allows the actors plenty of room to move about contemplating their dilemmas (gorgeous projections by Hsuan-Kuang Hsieh; era-perfect costumes by Helen Q. Huang). Under Jennifer Chang‘s sensitive, flowing, eagle-eye direction — aided by Erika Chong Shuch‘s movement — the production is at once beautiful and horrific, entertaining and disturbing. With strong and heartfelt performances, the story is riveting and intense, and the incisive plotting captures the cultural essences of sacrifice, duty, and a certain flavor of pragmatism quite well. It’s fraught with emotions as the characters realize there are no easy decisions, and that there are consequences for every choice. You can’t help but open your eyes and heart to what Chinese immigrants faced as they were interrogated to prove or request citizenship in the 1900s.

Tommy Bo and Whit K. Lee

Although the Angel Island Detention Center closed in 1940, most of the buildings are still there and intact. Recently, beneath the clay on the walls, carved Chinese symbols have been found, illustrating poems and stories about the hopes, fears and dreams of the detainees. Filled with heart, stakes, and social reverberation, Lloyd Suh’s The Far Country illustrates and brings these stories to life. The show upholds Berkeley Rep’s reputation of bringing to the stage moving stories that need to be told and not become a forgotten part of history.

Tommy Bo and Sharon Shao

photos by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

The Far Country
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison Street @ Shattuck
ends on April 14, 2024
for tickets, call 510.647.2949 or visit Berkeley Rep

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