Probably the last thing on your cultural to-do list is to see a play about a gay Chinese youth who shoots his lover in an English public toilet. We know what you'd think—it sounds disgusting, shocking, fetishy—but you'd be wrong. Chay Yew's Porcelainis an exceptionally moving tale of assimilation and desire for acceptance that's not just brilliantly written, but also tastefully executed. And not only do you never have to see a toilet, but you also never get to see a penis, which I guess evens things out.
It's the story of John Lee (Nghia Luu), told through Lee's recollections while in prison after the murder and by brief monologues and dialogues delivered by Lee and four men in black, billed merely as "Voice 1," "2," etc. The Voices take on various personas: there are a series of soundbites from TV-news interviewees who are gay, straight and that other orientation—straight-but-enjoy-getting-a-little-oral-from-other-men-in-the-lavatory-on-lunch-break (the latter offering humorous, sometimes poignant observations on the state of "cottaging," code for "getting it off in a public loo"). The Voices eventually become people we get to know more intimately: the psychiatrist (Beach Vickers) who interviews Lee in prison; Lee's heartbroken father (Dimas Diaz); William Hope (Casey Long), the "straight" lover who is killed; and the smarmy TV interviewer himself (Ricky Culbertson). The stage is stark, with abstract platforms hovering above a sea of miniature origami swans, and the dramatic effects are summoned by intricate lighting cues that probably number in the hundreds. It's goddamned beautiful. It's also devastating.
A sordid gay-murder scenario would seemingly evoke little empathy, but as we're taken into Lee's world of loneliness and rejection, we begin to understand his struggle and his extremities. Being Asian in White America can be hard enough—but if you think straight white women have to work hard to get a man, try being a non-white gay man in a community that only celebrates white gay men and perverted scenarios of MadameButterfly.Add to this the fraud perpetuated by closeted men who are suffocated by homophobia yet still take on clandestine lovers, and you get a picture of one fucked-up reality.
Director Oanh Nguyen takes advantage of every artistic visual onstage, as well as of the fine group of actors he's assembled to bring this troubling story to life. It's funny, sad and insightful—and translates no matter who you are.