Last fall, Troy Scheid flew to San Francisco to attend a performance of David Henry Hwang’s play Chinglish at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Scheid was in the midst of directing her own production of the play for Houston’s Black Lab Theatre, and the San Franciscans wanted to know how she planned to find enough bilingual actors in Houston for the play. (Only about half of Chinglish is performed in English; the other half is Mandarin, with projected English subtitles).

Thru May 26
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As it turned out, the concern was unnecessary. Scheid was able to cast all but one of the parts with Houston actors, and Vivian Chiu, the only non-local, was picked not because of a local dearth of polyglot thespians but because Chiu had been the understudy for the role in the play’s 2011-2012 Broadway production. Of course, a play in two languages poses problems beyond casting. “We have one cast member whose English is minimal, so another actor has to translate my instructions,” said Scheid, who is fluent in English and German, but not, alas, in Mandarin. “Then, if he has questions about what I say, that has to go through a translator as well. That multiplies the time it takes to rehearse, but it’s also fascinating to see what someone from a different culture thinks about the show.”

In Chinglish, a Midwestern businessman travels to China to secure a contract for his family’s sign-making business. While navigating a landmine of cultural differences, he falls in love with one of his hosts, which threatens to blow up entire deal. The play, which received rave reviews and enjoyed a two-year run on Broadway, is the first extended-run theatrical production to be mounted in the new Asia Society Texas Center. According to Black Lab Theatre, performances have been packed. “We have had some of the most diverse audience groups that I have ever seen at the theater in Houston,” Scheid said.

Jordan Jaffe, Black Lab Theatre’s artistic director, said Chinglish was the most difficult play he had ever produced. “One of the things I’m really proud of is that the Mandarin in the play is authentic,” Jaffee said. “There’s no faking it in a big global center like Houston, where we’re going to have Mandarin-speaking people come see the show.” 

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