While it may seem to be torn from today’s headlines, the immigrant’s saga in “The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin” has been in development at the History Theatre for several years, and the main character’s plight can be traced back to the end of the 19th century.
Jessica Huang’s striking new play, which opened over the weekend, is drawn from the real experiences of Chin, who emigrated from China to St. Paul at the end of the 1930s. These were the final years of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which would have prevented this refugee of a starving village from entering the United States.
Except there were loopholes. Chin was a “paper son” — he bought forged papers to claim a connection to a U.S. citizen. Even then, life was not easy. Neither is Huang’s play, which offers Chin’s life as a kind of puzzle box. There are a lot of secrets hidden in his story. The History Theatre’s premiere production makes for an absorbing evening that requires the audience to work hard for the payoff.
The action mostly takes place in 1970, as a middle-aged Chin deals with the loss of his longtime American wife, the estrangement of his American daughter and the ghosts of the life he left behind in China. Key moments of his life are told in flashbacks: Chin memorizing the details of his new “family” on the boat from China to America; enduring months of interrogation before being allowed to enter the United States; finding love with a waitress at the restaurant where he works in St. Paul.
As the play unfolds, these moments begin to intersect. It is the Ghost Month, a time in the Chinese calendar when spirits can walk the Earth. That leads to trouble at work, and growing tensions between Chin and his 20-something daughter, Sheila.
All this yields a play that is emotionally and structurally difficult, but provides rewards by its end. The dreamlike telling allows for striking theatrical moments, such as the voices of the American interrogators. Since Chin does not speak English, we hear what he hears — a guttural mix of animal howls and whistles.
The company ably carries the emotional load, led by Song Kim as Chin, who gives us a man who has worked hard his entire life to make things better for both of his families, but whose secrets have resulted in a lot of pain.
This isn’t a completely dour, dark ride. Kim makes us feel the warmth and undying hope at the core of Chin — a man who knows that our stories, whether true or on “paper,” have great power.
Ed Huyck is a Twin Cities theater critic.