Ask playwright Lloyd Suh about what inspired his mouthful of a play “Charles Francis Chan Jr.’s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery,” and he takes a deep breath.
“I feel like I’m responding to the many competing impulses that have accumulated over my entire life,” he said by phone from his home in New York.
By that, he means the stereotypes he’s had to shadowbox as an Asian-American man. Sometimes, he wants to bury them, but they are like the undead: “You can never really kill these stereotypes. They rise back up and leave a legacy.”
Suh — or more precisely, a playwright named Frank — wrestles with what it means to be Asian-American in his 2015 drama, which gets its regional premiere Saturday in a Mu Performing Arts production at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.
In particular, it tackles the fictional detective Charlie Chan, that 1920s-30s cultural icon famous for his inscrutability and fortune-cookie aphorisms. A play-within-a-play, “Charles Francis Chan Jr.” has been described as an “Orientalist minstrel show that ends in a grotesque carnival of murder.” Darkly comic and acidly political, it digs into yellowface and whitewashing — practices in which white actors play Asian-American characters.
In books and on-screen, Charlie Chan defined the tropes that would influence Asian-Americans, and the larger culture’s view of Asian-Americans, from the 1920s through the 1960s, when Asian-American artists and activists began to reject this character loudly.
One of them was writer Frank Chin, whose major plays include “The Chickencoop Chinaman,” which attacks Asian-American stereotypes even as it replicates black ones. Frank is a character in Suh’s play, set in 1967. Chin and others argued vehemently for the symbolic killing of Charlie Chan, and to have that character go the way of other benighted figures such as lawn jockeys and mammy figurines.
“With Charlie Chan, you get a character who was sort of accepted in the larger society and is kind of beloved in it, so much so that he made ethnic jokes himself,” Suh said. “He’s a complicated cultural icon.”
His complexities were explored in the 2010 book “Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous With American History.”
“He’s a double curse,” said author Yunte Huang, an English professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
“In the 1920s and ’30s, when minstrelsy and blackface were popular, it wasn’t just white actors putting on blackface, but black actors had to follow the stereotypes created by white actors,” he said. “The same double curse is what people like Frank Chin were trying to undo with Charlie Chan and yellowface.
“I understand the anger when you have to work out of a racist framework.”
Real life inspiration
That fictitious character was inspired by a real hero, Chinese-American detective Chang Apana, who joined the Honolulu police in 1898. Apana wielded a bullwhip, with which he rounded up dozens of gamblers.
Starting in the 1920s, writer Earl Derr Biggers drew upon that inspiration while vacationing with his family in Hawaii. He wrote half a dozen mysteries with Chan at the center, serializing them in newspapers. Hollywood spread the stories even further, even as Chan was played by a series of white men (Warner Oland and Sidney Toler, most prominently).
Biggers intended the character as an antidote to the crafty Dr. Fu Manchu, the fictional Mongol Satan who epitomized the “yellow peril” hysteria that cast Asians in a negative light. Nonetheless, Chan reinforced other stereotypes that continue to this day.
“He spoke a little bit like Yoda, but in metaphors,” said Randy Reyes, who is directing “Charles Francis Chan Jr.” and also acts in the production. “He had an accent, but he was totally understandable. He dressed nicely, was not emotive, got along with everyone, and there was a huge mystery around him. He was a model minority. He was also complicit in serving the needs of the power structure.
“And, of course, he was played by white actors because we’re not good enough for our own stories.”
All of these are tropes that Asian-Americans continue to wrestle with, Reyes said.
For Huang, discussions around Charlie Chan, especially those stirred up by Suh’s play, are important so that Americans do not lose sight of the nation’s cultural history.
“As a cultural icon, he’s still very much a ghostly presence in our cultural memory, especially with the older generation,” Huang said. “For the younger generation, he’s the cultural subconscious. The problem with cultural icons like Charlie Chan is that you never know where they’re going to pop up.”