Abigail Tsai performs in "Monologues of n Women," using large fabric sheets as props, with various actors arms emerging from underneath

Mandarin Language Yun Theatre Pushes Boundaries on the Stage

by Amanda Ong

Just since last year, Yun Theatre has brought together Seattle’s first theatre company specifically built around contemporary performances in Mandarin. With progressive storylines and productions in Mandarin with English subtitles available, Yun Theatre is bringing a new perspective to Chinese American voices and to the Seattle performing scene. Its next show, In Between, comes to Center Theatre at Seattle Center this month. 

“We are trying to document marginalized communities and address a lot of social and political issues that are affecting our life,” Christie Zhao, theater director at Yun Theatre, told the South Seattle Emerald. “When I speak English, there’s always some sort of a barrier to what I really want to say, and being able to create [in my native language] in Seattle, I can communicate with the audience.”

While previous shows have been performed in Mandarin, Yun Theatre offers onstage English translations. In Between is composed of seven one-act plays, with some in English, some in Mandarin, and some in both. The translator, in fact, also serves as the production composer and music director — YUELAN is a second-generation Chinese American composer and musician from Renton and has created original scores for each Yun Theatre production. For In Between, YUELAN has not only scored the production, but also plays onstage live with a band alongside the performance. Band members play keyboard, guitar, kazoo, and even the guzheng, a traditional Chinese stringed instrument.

Poster for “In Between,” running this month. (Photo courtesy of Yun Theatre.)

Unlike Zhao, English is their first language, so English translation is a space where they can express themselves. “I’m a second-gen Chinese American,” YUELAN told the South Seattle Emerald. “A lot of the people we collaborate with in doing theater are first-gen Chinese, so I get to collaborate with people who have a slightly different view of what it means to be Chinese and what it means to be American than I do.”

Zhao and YUELAN collaborated together for the first time last year for Yun Theatre’s Monologues of n Women, “n” being a math variable that is commonly used as slang in China. The run quickly sold out. YUELAN’s soundtrack for this play is also available on their Spotify and other streaming services.

“The show was kind of inspired by news about a woman being mistreated in China, and now we just wanted to have this show to document our experience, and to document the trauma, to archive it in the device [of the] show,” Zhao said. “The topic of our show is very much banned in mainland China. … I think that is what inspires us to keep going as well, because there is a lot of artwork that we cannot make in mainland China that we can make [here].”

The team has struggled at times with its novel place as a bicultural theatre. It has noted that some members of the press and the public have expressed wariness of seeing a Mandarin play or about the quality of its translations, even though multiple members of the company are fluently bilingual in Mandarin and English.

“There is definitely a lot of pressure of legitimacy,” Zhao said. “As if [we can’t be] making legitimate theater if we’re not doing it in English in this country, if we’re not doing something that is relatable to white people.”

Leon Chan and Yihan Lin in Yun Theatre’s production of “Two Goldfish (Who Become Heroes).” (Photo: Siqi Chen)

Its next production was Two Goldfish, a one-act show in which it worked with a variety of Chinese Americans, from immigrants to second or third generation, trying to capture their experiences from a non-American perspective. 

In Between will run from Aug. 15 through Aug. 27. The production is a compilation of seven 10-minute stories, which the production team drew from over 170 submissions. Zhao says each reflects the “in-betweenness” of being an immigrant, and not being totally from one culture or the other. The narratives that come together reflect on everything from the afterlife, DACA, and deportation to climate change and animal rights. 

With broadening horizons and stories, Yun Theatre is approaching bigger subjects, and with it, inviting a larger audience to find what they can learn from their stories. 

“We try to invite American or English-speaking audiences into our space,” YUELAN said. “Because sometimes Americans aren’t necessarily used to being in a space where that’s not made for them. … I think it’s interesting to navigate, even when we’re creating the work, the audience reaction from our viewer and demographics.”

In Between will run on Aug. 15, 17, 18, 19, 20, 24, 25, 26, and 27. Tickets run between $15 and $25. You can purchase tickets on Eventbrite.

Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.

📸 Featured Image: Yun Theatre’s first production, “Monologues of n Women,” sold out its seven-day run. Here, Abigail Tsai (center) performs. (Photo: Siqi Chen)

Before you move on to the next story …

The South Seattle Emerald is brought to you by Rainmakers. Rainmakers give recurring gifts at any amount. With around 1,000 Rainmakers, the Emerald is truly community-driven local media. Help us keep BIPOC-led media free and accessible.

If just half of our readers signed up to give $6 a month, we wouldn’t have to fundraise for the rest of the year. Small amounts make a difference.

We cannot do this work without you. Become a Rainmaker today!

Leave a ReplyCancel reply