Theater: Found in Translation

By Catherine Barry

Three Bay Area plays offer highly entertaining dives into cultures not typically depicted on the American stage

Things are already complicated enough when it comes to humans understanding (and misunderstanding) each other. Add to the mix cultural miscommunications and language differences and here’s an opportunity for not only comic treatment, but to reveal all the nuance behind how language and communication inform our sense of self, and cultural identity. This spring, three plays take this theme to Bay Area stages.


Berkeley Repertory, Peet’s Theatre
Through May 7

The West Coast premiere of award-winning playwright Sanaz Toossi’s “English” is currently performing at Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theatre and runs until early May. Directed by Mina Morita, “English" is funny, moving, deeply humanistic and unintentionally timely, given the events that have shaken Iran in recent months. The engaging story follows four Iranian adult students preparing for the Test of English as a Foreign Language, each with individual goals around mastering the English language and each displaying insecurities and apprehension about compromising their inner voice.

Students Elham (Mehry Eslaminia), Goli (Christine Mirzayan), Roya (Sarah Nina Hayon ) Omid (Amir Malaklou) and teacher Marjan (Sahar Bibiyan) together strive for freedom and escape through language, but as the play unfolds, identities become undone .

A vibrant Iranian community surrounds us here in the Bay Area as playwright Sanaz Toossi celebrates.

“I am deeply honored to be making my West Coast debut as a playwright at Berkeley Rep,” said Toossi. “Ever since my days at the Ground Floor in 2019, I have been eagerly waiting for the opportunity to return to this incredible theater. As ever, I take great pride in being Iranian, and I hope this production is a chance for the vibrant Iranian community in the Bay Area to see some of their experiences reflected onstage."

Poor Yella Rednecks

A.C.T.’s Strand Theater

Through May 7, 2023

Jenny Nguyen Nelson and Christine Jamlig in Qui Nguyen’s "Poor Yella Rednecks." Photo by Kevin Berne

Ever-inventive playwright Qui Nguyen (Vietgone, 2018), returns to A.C.T. with “Poor Yella Rednecks,” the second in his trilogy continuing the story of a Vietnamese family who have swapped Saigon for El Dorado, Arkansas, and are navigating the rocky road of the American Dream. Under the direction of Jaime Castañeda, “Poor Yella Rednecks,” sees the two main characters, Tong (Jenny Nguyen Nelson) and Quang (Hyunmin Rhee) working their way through the woes of new immigrant life, while a very strong and compelling story of family love throbs at its core.

Underscored with unexpected bursts of rap singing, the story radiates out from the love story of the two main characters to incorporate the family relationship with a very dry and witty grandma, Huong (Christine Jamlig), and the couple’s young elementary school son, Little Man, who speaks through an adorable wooden puppet, operated by actor Will Dao. The nod to the Vietnam tradition of puppetry speaks sweetly to the difficulty of expression for a next-generation American-born child.

The creative team, under the guidance of Jaime Castañeda, has ingeniously made the most of the Strand Theatre's limited-space stage with Tanya Orellana's multilevel set which successfully houses disparate pieces of this story.

Language-wise the play spotlights the expected difficulties obstructing proper assimilation for immigrants, as well as examining fundamental methods of expression between the characters and their white cowboy neighbors. Song lyrics belting forward add heart to that expression, successfully luring the audience into the inner language and sentiment of the characters. The pay-attention blasts of Yi Zhao's bright stage lighting make sure we are doing just that.

Humor meets pathos in "Poor Yella Rednecks" and language finds its place. Profanity loving grandma, Huong, has found one method of expression that works for her. She has clearly embraced her adopted country’s expletive-laden language using expressions such as "Fuck a duck, Starsky and Hutch!"


San Francisco Playhouse

May 4 – June 10, 2023

Nicole Tung as Xi Yan and Michael Barrett Austin as Daniel Cavanaugh in San Francisco Playhouse's production of David Henry Hwang's "Chinglish." Photo by Jessica Palopoli

Coming up in May, David Henry Hwang’s new comedy “Chinglish” provides a highly entertaining look at cultural miscommunication. The play opened on Broadway back in 2011, and a revised and modified version, directed by highly sought-after Filipino-American playwright and director, Jeffrey Lo, comes to SF Playhouse this month.

The story follows American businessman, Daniel Cavanaugh, who arrives in China with sights set on securing a business contract for his family’s sign-making company. Cavanaugh is challenged with issues of culture, customs and language as he strives to do business in China. Business dealings — already complicated enough — are further compounded by confusing Chinese-to-English translations. In a land where “To Take Notice of Safe: The Slippery Are Very Crafty” indicates “Slippery Slopes Ahead” and “Financial Affairs Is Everywhere Long” translates into “Chief Financial Officer,” there’s no shortage of comedic material here.

Hwang’s career has spanned more than three decades. His “M.Butterfly” captivated national theater audiences in the late 1980s, and won Hwang a Tony Award, making him the first Asian American to win that award.

The playwright, librettist, and professor at Columbia University says he was inspired to create “Chinglish” during a trip he took to Shanghai (he advises businesspeople to China to bring along their own translator.) “The U.S. and China are at a critical moment in history —each nation is deeply interested in, but knows very little about the other. ‘Chinglish’ was born from the many visits I’ve made to China over the past several years to witness the exciting changes there. During one visit, I toured a new arts center where everything was first-rate — except for the ridiculously translated English signs. The handicapped restrooms sign read, ‘Deformed Man’s Toilet.’ It was at that moment I thought of writing this play.”

The Chicago Tribune's review about the 2011 show glowed, "Four stars! In Hwang's hilarious Chinglish, the Chinese tiger roars, American business trembles. Laughs and sexual pleasure in translation. A shrewd, timely and razor sharp comedy! David Henry Hwang's best work since M. Butterfly.”

Jeffrey Lo is a playwright director and self-professed “all around good guy.” He is the recipient of the Leigh Weimers Emerging Artist Award, the Emerging Artist Laureate by Arts Council Silicon Valley and Theatre Bay Area Director's TITAN Award. He directed San Francisco Playhouse's productions of “Hold These Truths” and “The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin.” If these last two Lo-directed shows at SFPlayhouse are anything to go by, we are in for a treat with "Chinglish."

Main image: Will Dao and Hyunmin Rhee in Qui Nguyen’s "Poor Yella Rednecks." Photo by Kevin Berne.

Catherine Barry
Catherine Barry
Editor at SF/Arts
Editor at SF/Arts
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