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Tiger Style! Takes on Racial Stereotypes

Huntington comedy has fun with immigrant experience, tiger parenting

When Amy Chua published her 2011 memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, the book provoked an immediate firestorm. Chua was accused of promoting cultural stereotypes and a style of parenting that was overly strict and bordering on cruel. But something about her book struck a chord with playwright Mike Lew.

Lew, a Chinese American who was pushed to excel in academics (he is a graduate of Yale and Julliard), found the furor around Chua’s book misleading. So he set out to write a counternarrative to “prevailing stereotypes about Asian tiger-parenting and the notion that Asian families care only about achievement and don’t even love each other.”

The result is Tiger Style! a hilarious satirical comedy about high-achieving Chinese American brother and sister Albert and Jennifer, who despite their numerous academic and professional achievements find themselves flummoxed when their lives start falling apart. As the play opens, software engineer Albert has just been passed up for a promotion, and Jennifer, who has earned both a PhD and an MD and wants desperately to be married, has just been dumped by her boyfriend.

The two decide to confront their parents and embark on what they call an Asian Freedom Tour, pushing back against racial stereotypes and cultural bias, first by attempting to be fully American, and later by taking a birthright trip to China.

The play premiered last year at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta. The Huntington Theatre Company has mounted a new production, playing at the Boston Center for the Arts Calderwood Pavilion through November 13. Most of the original cast, including Ruibo Qian (CFA’05) as Jennifer, are reprising their roles for the Huntington production. Also on hand as director is Moritz von Stuelpnagel (CFA’00), who helmed the original production.

Von Stuelpnagel and Lew are longtime collaborators and friends. They met 13 years ago when they were working as interns at the nonprofit off-Broadway theater Playwrights Horizons. “I think this is maybe the seventh production we’ve done together,” says von Stuelpnagel. “It’s really wonderful, because knowing Mike so well, we can just get into the heart of what’s working, what’s not working, and how we can continue to refine the play—which, with a new play, is always an immensely important process.”

Von Stuelpnagel says he was drawn to Tiger Style! by the play’s humor. “Mike’s characters are always hyperarticulate, but typically they have a failing and a lack of self-awareness,” he says. “To me, those kind of characters are rife for comedy. Like me, Mike also has a real love of bouncing sharply back and forth between high-brow and low-brow comedy. When you take those stark turns between something incredibly articulate and smart to something incredibly bawdy, I think it keeps the audience on their toes.”

The director also says that this is a play that defies audience expectations: “Often, when you hear about a play that touches on race, it may sound like a kind of grave evening, but Mike is trying to find a way through the conversation that lets us laugh.”

Fueled largely by its two often-hapless protagonists, Tiger Style! probes serious issues: the cultural baggage we carry versus the cultural biases society places on us, Ivy League burnout, and generational differences. Von Stuelpnagel describes the comedy as “a refinement of how we’ve been talking about race, not just in black-and-white issues, but the fact that race is part of identity…that who we are is, for better or for worse, sometimes defined by the place and society that we’re living in.”

It’s an issue that the director too has personal experience with. His parents immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1975. “Mike has immigrant grandparents and I have immigrant parents, so to a certain degree, there is a similarity: I do understand about the idea of what does assimilation mean for your background, and heritage, and culture. At the same time, I have to recognize that there is a major difference in that I’m white, and so assimilation means something different for me than to a person of color.”

CFA: spirit of ensemble building and collaboration

While Tiger Style! is his first directing gig at the Huntington, von Stuelpnagel says the production signifies a homecoming for him. After graduating from the College of Fine Arts in 2000, he interned at the Huntington for a year, working as an assistant director on four productions, each staged by a different director, an experience he found invaluable. “To see these four directors work in different ways was a great foundation,” he says, adding that it taught him that “there’s no one way to tackle this process of what we do.”

As a CFA student, von Stuelpnagel was struck by the spirit of ensemble building and collaboration that existed and the premium placed on “finding ways to express oneself freely and fully. That produced in me at school a kind of joy that I’ve always found in the work,” he says.

After his internships at the Huntington and at Playwrights Horizons, he worked off-Broadway, directing plays at places like Ensemble Studio Theatre and as artistic director of Studio 42, a theater company dedicated to producing “unproducible plays.” Last year, he was nominated for a Tony Award for his Broadway debut, Hand to God, a dark comedy about a demonic sock puppet. And he could well be nominated again this spring: von Stuelpnagel’s next Broadway production will be a much-anticipated revival of Noel Coward’s Present Laughter, starring Tony- and Oscar-winning actor Kevin Kline, set to open on Broadway in April.

Francis Jue, Quian, Schneider, and Emily Kuroda on stage in Tiger Style! in a scene where they are eating Chinese take out on a dining room table

Francis Jue, Quian, Schneider, and Emily Kuroda in a scene from Tiger Style! playing through November 13 at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts.

Ruibo Qian says the character of Jennifer, the smart but romantically challenged sister in Tiger Style! is one she identifies closely with. She was just four when she and her family moved to the United States from Shanghai. “I related to this character so much,” Qian says, and when she first read Lew’s play, she laughed out loud. “I was like, I want to do this. I had never seen a play that deals with this particular topic of Asian-American identity in a family setting that is also a hilarious comedy.” Lew perfectly captures a culture that has parents put their kids through stringent academic and extracurricular programs, she says: “He has such insight into the truth, and he’s so talented at bringing out the humor in those types of situations.”

The role of Jennifer gives the actress a chance to show off both her dramatic and comedic chops. Despite the laughs, she says, her character undergoes an emotional journey. “She begins her awareness of the need to let go of a timeline, let go of checking off all the things that she thinks she needs in order to have a fulfilling life.”

Qian believes Tiger Style! is likely to resonate with everyone of a certain age. “In this generation, where it seems the bar has been set so high for everybody who has achieved a lot, we hope the play is a mirror: that people see all the poignancy of wow, all these things happen and we still don’t quite know who we are. This is a play about growing up and finding who you are, finding your identity.”

The role has been a cathartic experience for the actress as well. “I do feel like it’s helping me come to terms with my relationship with my family and with the way I was brought up,” Qian says. “As I do the play, I’m like, oh, I get it, that’s where that comes from, or, that’s how I relate to my family.”

Playing, as it is, during the final days of the most polarizing presidential election campaign in modern history, one where immigrants have often been stereotyped and belittled, Lew’s comedy couldn’t be more timely.

The Huntington Theatre Company production of Tiger Style! is running at the Boston Center for the Arts Calderwood Pavilion’s Wimberley Theatre, 527 Tremont St., Boston, through November 20. Purchase tickets online, by phone at 617-266-0800, or in person at the Calderwood Pavilion box office or the BU Theatre box office, 264 Huntington Ave. Patrons 35 and younger may purchase $30 tickets (ID required) for any production, and there is a $5 discount for seniors. Military personnel can purchase tickets for $20 with promo code MILITARY, and student tickets are available for $20 (valid ID required). Members of the BU community get $10 off (ID required). Call 617-266-0800 for more information. Follow the Huntington Theatre Company on Twitter at @huntington.

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John O'Rourke, Editor of BU Today at Boston University
John O’Rourke

John O’Rourke can be reached at orourkej@bu.edu.

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