By: Samuel L. Leiter
May 22, 2022: In Golden Shield, now at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Stage 1,Thai-Australian playwright Anchuli Felicia King has written a semi-fictional docudrama about a class action suit against a corrupt American-based multinational tech corporation. The Texas-based company is being sued by an American legal firm for its responsibility in creating an internet censoring system (the eponymous Golden Shield) for the equally corrupt Chinese government, which led to the punishment of eight Chinese dissidents who tried to scale its firewall. Even though the company, ONYS, is fictional, the case is similar enough to real ones (involving companies like Cisco and Yahoo) to have made a riveting courtroom drama.
Unfortunately, Ms. King has thickened the plot with another one about two warring China-born siblings, Julie Chen (Cindy Cheung), the gung-ho lawyer whose idea it is to bring the case, and her younger sister, Eva (Ruibo Qian), who (unbeknownst to Julie) earns her living as a sex worker. The sisters’ friction, related to their late, hateful mother when they were children in China, is exacerbated after Julie, who says her own Mandarin is “shot to shit,” hires the fluent Eva to serve as her translator when she goes to Beijing.
Then, presumably to further humanize the legal folderol, we have yet another subplot when we get to know the one dissident willing to testify, Prof. Li Dao (Michael C. Liu), and his wife, Huang Mei (Kristen Hung), whose well-acted parts are entirely in Mandarin. Their personal struggle, especially after Li is arrested, serves five years, and is so badly beaten he becomes wheelchair bound, could easily be a play in itself.
Most of the scenes occur within a neutral set (by the collective group called dots), its walls covered in a tech-like pattern. For no apparent reason, though the Lis’ scenes take place in a realistic living room, placed in an upstage center slot.
Over and above these competing plotlines—which also include Eva’s lesbian flirtation with an Australian executive named Amanda Carlson (Gillian Saker)—are numerous sidebars in which the characters debate legal ethics. In addition, the play introduces the constant presence—usually on the sidelines, but briefly in the action—of a smartly dressed, charismatic, and witty Translator (Fang Du). His job is to comment, frequently, on the linguistic difficulties of nuance in translation, specifics of Mandarin usage, and the overarching subject of communication in general. It’s too bad Ms. King also finds it necessary for him to offer explanations of the characters and their interplay, which ignores the playwriting rule, “show, don’t tell.” Given the nature of the play’s concerns and its dramatic conflicts, the Translator’s existence, however occasionally interesting, can’t avoid adding a didactic tone to the proceedings.
The episodic action is set in Washington, D.C., Beijing, Yingcheng, Dallas, Palo Alto, and Melbourne at various times between 2006 and 2016. Scenes swiftly shift as actors move essential furnishings into place to the accompaniment of brisk music and sounds created by Charles Coes and Nathan A. Roberts. Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew’s dramatic lighting helps a bit, as do the costumes designed by Sara Ryung Clement, but there are so many time and location shifts, backward and forward, that, inevitably, confusion sets in.
Ms. Cheung, Ms. Qian, Mr. Du, Mr. Liu, and Max Gordon Moore all play single roles, the latter as Marshall McLaren, the obnoxious American in charge of China Operations for ONYS. The four other actors, including Daniel Jenkins as a law firm partner and an ONYS executive, play two roles each. The most successful at differentiating their characters is Kristen Hung, playing both Prof. Li’s gentle wife, Mei, and a stern-faced Chinese minister.
May Adrales’s vigorous direction goes for the jugular, often forcing the actors, like Ms. Cheung and Mr. Moore, to shout, making them more like stock figures than human beings. And one wonders why, in a play so much of which is about language, both Ms. Cheung and Ms. Qian, whose characters come from China, have absolutely no trace of an accent, and speak perfectly colloquial English—with out-of-character f-words exploding like firecrackers on the lunar New Year. Even the Translator, for all his fluency, carries the trace of an accent.
A play about internet censorship, be it in China, the USA, or wherever, should be its own best excuse for existing. Golden Shield opens the door, but soon puts up its own shield by diverting our attention to peripheral matters. Ms. King shows promise, but she never does scale the firewall.
Manhattan Theatre Club Stage
131 W. 55th Street, NYC
Through June 12, 2022
Photography: Julieta Cervantes