By Olivia Popp
Christopher Chen is extraordinarily clever.
Obie Award-winning Bay Area playwright Chen is a one-of-a-kind writer and artist — someone who understands and manipulates the medium like no other whose work I’ve ever seen. His newly produced work “You Mean to Do Me Harm” takes simple suspicion and paranoia and exaggerates it to exceptional proportions, forcing the audience to confront how much is real and how much is fabricated by the characters’ minds.
I was first exposed to Chen’s work after reading “Caught,” a play of infinitely complex meta-levels of reality that had me questioning which parts of the play were actually the “real” parts of the world weeks after I read (and saw the production, produced by the Asian American Theater Project in winter of 2017) the script. I then saw Chen’s “A Tale of Autumn” at Crowded Fire Theater, which takes more direct aim at capitalism and complacency in the face of bureaucracy. Nevertheless, “Caught” is still my favorite play of all time.
Chen’s work does not joke around. It might be humorous, and it may be comedic, but Chen takes power structures, perspective and perception, sociopolitical systems and authoritative dynamics and completely turns them all on their heads. It’s a particularly niche category of work, but his boy of work lies so in the same vein (yet it’s all so different!). He challenges structures of our society and uses audience expectations for what a play and narrative can or should be against us.
In the case of “You Mean to Do Me Harm,” two interracial couples — one with a white man (Ben, played by Cassidy Brown) and Chinese woman born and raised in the U.S. (Samantha, played by Charisse Loriaux), the other with a white woman (Lindsay, played by Katie Rubin) and Chinese man born in China but raised in the U.S. (Daniel, played by Jomar Tagatac) — come head to head at a dinner party. After Ben makes a simple aside at the very start of the play, Daniel becomes suspicious of Ben’s intentions, suspecting that he intends to try and seduce back Lindsay, whom he dated in college.
In a series of chronological scenes, the two couples talk with each other, talk with the partners of the others and begin to dissect one simple line. Did Ben really intend to seduce Lindsay? Is Daniel just being paranoid and insecure? Who actually started this whole ordeal?
Chen takes us through a marvelous set of what-ifs and semi-surrealist realities accented and magnified by the trippy (truly, it’s the only way to describe it) set by Angrette McCloskey, simple and black, with mirrors on the ceiling distorting what’s happening on the ground. With sound and projection design by Theodore J.H. Hulsker, a back projection and the eerie hum of the space flickers and distorts every so often as the realities of each characters shift and transform.
In a way, Chen very intentionally pokes at what many people (in this case, highlighted by the white characters’ perception) brush off as “cultural differences.” However, Samantha and Daniel were both raised in the U.S., and their ways of approaching the play’s predicament ultimately don’t speak to their Asian or Asian American sides (and isn’t actually discussed beyond a few surface-level comments as a set-up in the beginning). As I see it, Chen allows the audience to play into his trap — the story really isn’t about a divide between white American and Asian American sociopolitics. Rather, a majority of the audience may see it as such because of the ethnicities of the characters.
SF Playhouse frames “Harm” as such — a “psychological exploration of Chinese and American foreign relations, and of the personal relations we hold most dear.” Ultimately, it’s much more of a latter that is at play — Samantha and Daniel certainly do not represent the Chinese side of foreign relations (even Ben, as a nearly self-proclaimed “China expert/enthusiast,” as designated by his job may even take that side). Audience members may have the perception that it’s some sort of “cultural difference” that’s fueling the battle onstage, but all in all, it’s really audience bias that’s fueling it all.
You still have a week to go see “You Mean to Do Me Harm,” so I won’t spoil the end — but in a matter of seconds, Chen turns the entire story on itself, asking us the real reason why we’re watching this play. Try to challenge your own biases and perspectives when seeing Chen’s new work — you may surprise yourself.