Race, Relationships, Roles: T2’s ‘Tiger Style!’ looks at cultural identity

Race, Relationships, Roles: T2’s ‘Tiger Style!’ looks at cultural identity
April Wallace

If you’ve ever disappointed your parents, you might relate to “Tiger Style!,” a comedy about race, family relationships and the definition of success, which opened this weekend at TheatreSquared.

Brother and sister Albert and Jennifer Chen are successes by American standards, with their careers as software programmer and doctor, but continue to face criticism from their immigrant parents — Albert for being passed up for a promotion and Jennifer for her recent breakup. Throughout the play, both struggle with their respective identities as Chinese Americans and where they fit in.

Hyunmin Rhee and Stephanie Shum costar as the sibling pair.

Rhee says his character is trying to figure out where he belongs, torn between conflicting traditions.

“Do I belong here in America even though I was born here? Even with all of the knowledge of (Chinese) culture and background and upbringing implemented into my life, based on growing up in a Chinese immigrant family, I don’t really know anything about China, I’ve never been there before,” Rhee says, speaking from Albert’s perspective.

In the play, he and his sister don’t feel fully accepted in America, so they go to China only to realize they don’t belong there, either.

The production is compelling because it looks at “how to define success and how it’s different from our parents’ version, and how we pave a way forward for the American dream,” actress Shum says.

Its brilliance is that it tackles heavy and sometimes dark subject matter in a light way, she adds. She believes doing it in a comedy makes the message hit even harder.

The play opens with one of these opportunities to change perception around common but offensive stereotypes in a conversation where one character tries to guess Albert’s ethnicity, asking if he’s Chinese or not and wondering why he doesn’t speak Chinese. Rhee says this kind of unwelcome guessing game is played out even among groups in the Asian American community.

Shum says the relationship between her character, Jennifer, and her ex-boyfriend, Reggie, touches on the exoticism of Asian women.

As the characters in “Tiger Style!” struggle with their identities and how they let others’ opinions of those identities affect them, the audience gets a visual cue to their belonging as Americans with the chosen colors of the set and costumes. The stage is a monochromatic white box, while Albert is dressed in all blue and Jennifer in all red, says Joanna Bell, director of marketing and communications for TheatreSquared. (Courtesy Photo/Wesley Hitt for T2)

“That’s one of the things that the play talks about in a really smart way that I hadn’t heard anywhere else, the explanation and why the myth of (Asians being a) minority is hurtful,” Shum says.

Watching Albert and Jennifer and how they interact with the world, their coping with various levels of success and their parents misinterpretation of those things, might be eye opening for those not from immigrant families, and it might look familiar to those who are.

Shum definitely saw bits of herself and her family in the script. Her parents immigrated from Hong Kong, then she was born in Canada and raised in the U.S. Growing up she found herself having similar conversations of wanting to do something and being told no without explanation, such as a summer in her teen years when she wanted to work at Jamba Juice like the rest of her friends — something that was not going to happen.

“Growing up with my parents, they would expect things of me that were unspoken,” Shum says. “I didn’t understand these things, but they were ingrained in (my parents) … It was a weird culture shock going home and not knowing where I really belonged.”

In the play, Albert experiences a number of these frustrating conversations, in which he summons up his courage, and brings his sister with him just in case, to get an apology out of his parents, but it doesn’t happen. Rhee says can relate to that a bit from his own life.

Sometimes, depending on the topic that their script covers, Rhee says, “I’m not acting. This is how I feel! I’m sick and tired of it.”

In the end, the siblings walk away with two very different perspectives that you’ll have to learn by attending the show. But Rhee and Shum hope audiences laugh hard, recognize the situations but also remember that Asian hate crime is still very real.

“In a line of mine to Jennifer, I say that ‘When we talk about race, we only talk about Black and white, but where does that leave us?’” Rhee concludes.



‘Tiger Style!’

WHEN — 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday through April 3

WHERE — In person and streaming through TheatreSquared, 477 W. Spring St. in Fayetteville

COST — $15-$28

INFO — 777-7477 or theatre2.org

Categories: Theater