Theater Review: UNBROKEN BLOSSOMS (East West Players)

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by Shari Barrett on July 7, 2024

in Theater-Los Angeles


Before seeing the world premiere of Unbroken Blossoms by Philip W. Chung at East West Players, I had never heard of the 1919 American silent film Broken Blossoms, directed by D. W. Griffith starring Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess, in which a frail waif is abused by her brutal boxer father in London’s seedy Limehouse District due to her developing love affair with a sensitive Chinese immigrant. The film was the first to feature an integrated love story at its center, but due to societal interracial concerns, the leading man was played by a Caucasian actor in “yellow face” with the two young lovers not allowed to kiss or even touch each other lovingly during the film.

Ron Song as Moon Kwan, Conlan Ledwith as Richard Barthelmess,
and Gavin Kawin Lee as James B. Leong

Chung’s Unbroken Blossoms tells the story of the silenced voices behind the real silent film, the two “Chinese Ambassadors” hired to fact-check references and supply authentic props for the film whose contributions were silenced and never credited. Directed by Jeff Liu, the historical reimagining of the making of the boundary-breaking Hollywood classic shines a light “on the collateral damage in the search for authentic representation, and asks what price we pay for our art.”

Alexandra Hellquist as Lillian Gish

In program notes, playwright Chung shares, “Although my play is a work of fiction, I didn’t want to ‘whitewash’ the actual history. There are words and images in this story that reflect the bigotry and misogyny of the time that I understand may be difficult to hear and see, but my goal was to include that ugly history in service of shining a light on how far we’ve come and, sadly, how far we haven’t.” To that end, Unbroken Blossoms succeeds given its ability to open the eyes of its audience to filmmaking pioneers James B. Leong and Moon Kwan, but also to those still struggling for honest racial equality in all aspects of the media.

Gavin Kawin Lee as James B. Leong and Alexandra Hellquist as Gilda

The play follows Moon, an idealistic family man, and James, a cynical, aspiring filmmaker, who are hired as the Chinese American consultants for Broken Blossoms, as the two white actors have no knowledge of Chinese customs and idiosyncrasies. While dealing with the outsized ego of the film’s director D.W. Griffith, who was attempting to belie criticisms of racism in his controversial film The Birth of a Nation, and actor Richard Barthelmess’s lack of respect for the race and culture he was going to represent onscreen, the world premiere play illuminates historical conflicts hidden behind the silver screen.

Gavin Kawin Lee as James B. Leong and Ron Song as Moon Kwan

The cast of Unbroken Blossoms features Gavin Kawin Lee as James Leong, Ron Song as Moon Kwan, Arye Gross as D.W. Griffith, Alexandra Hellquist as Lillian Gish, and Conlan Ledwith as Richard Barthelmess. Each of these talented artists is to be commended for their total immersion into their character’s lives as the story jumps 40 years to when the older and wiser James meets up with Moon’s son (played by Song) to discuss what really happened to his father when he was brutally beaten while out buying props for Broken Blossoms. And since the two former co-workers had not spoken to each other since that incident, as Leong tells the story, scenes are played out on Mina Kinukawet’s beautiful and functional multi-level scenic design showing how much things may have changed in the ensuing years, and just how much they haven’t.

Arye Gross as D.W. Griffith

Special kudos to Ledwith as Richard Barthelmess who often had just minutes offstage to totally transform himself between the Broken Blossoms Caucasian actor and in his yellow-face makeup while portraying the film’s Chinese character. I greatly admired the skill with which he was able to apply, remove, and then reapply such intricate make-up without assistance, changing costumes as well as his physical bearing.

Alexandra Hellquist as Lillian Gish, Gavin Kawin Lee as James B. Leong, Ron Song as Moon Kwan

The overall intensity of Lee’s portrayal as James Leong who viewed Broken Blossoms as a stepping stone into making his own movies, came to a head each time he faced down the wrath of director Griffith, whose opinion of each scene often did not agree with Leong’s need for authenticity to Chinese customs. Moon’s advice was to always bow and nod each time the director did not agree with them, a practice Leong refused to do until pushed to the limit so as not to lose his job. The variety of emotions which Lee expressed so vividly with not only his words but his physical being were always on the mark.

Gavin Kawin Lee as James B. Leong, Ron Song as Moon Kwan, and Arye Gross as D.W. Griffith

The only issue with Song’s subdued performance as Moon Kwan was his muffled enunciation and the low volume of his voice which caused many of his lines to not be understood. And in such a small theater, all actors should be able to be heard clearly.

Conlan Ledwith as Richard Barthelmess, Ron Song as Moon Kwan, Gavin Kawin Lee as James B Leong

Struggling at the hands of her brutally-intense director, Alexandra Hellquist tore at my heartstrings as dedicated actor Lillian Gish during the film’s most intense scene when her character hides in a closet from her drunken father who plans to beat her after using an ax to break down the door. Gross was intense as Griffith in his attempt to get Gish to show her terror exactly as he meant it to be seen on her face; these two actors totally pulled me out of time, back to when not only races but all women were thought of as second-class citizens. And although Griffith did manage to realistically portray her terror in the silent film, shown via projections above the set, the struggle she faced behind the scenes to please him greatly increased my admiration for both, but for different reasons.

Conlan Ledwith as Richard Barthelmess

When the play jumps forward 40 years, Hellquist portrays Gilda, a Caucasian woman who must decide between loving an Asian man or choosing to leave him to stay true to her family values. The story reflects on the 1919 film, but in this timeframe after suffering a black eye inflicted on her by a demanding brother, Gilda decides its best to choose honoring her family’s wishes and walking away from her “forbidden” lover, portrayed by Lee. Again, two broken blossoms have found each other, only to be torn apart.

Ron Song as Moon Kwan

Liu keeps the action fast paced, using the multi-level playing areas to great effect, even though the first act consisted of some very repetitive dialogue. Colorful lighting designed by Wesley Charles Siu Muen Chew, along with period costuming designed by Jaymee Ngernwicht, enhanced the riveting moods of the entire production.

photos by Zev Rose Woolley

Unbroken Blossoms
East West Players
David Henry Hwang Theater, 120 Judge John Aiso Street
ends on July 21, 2024
for tickets, call 213.625.7000 or visit East West Players

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