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Yun Theatre delves into the intersection of Gay and Chinese identities

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(l-r) Christie Zhao — Photo by Cameron Astor, David Le — Photo by Trang Vo, Sebastian Wang — Courtesy photo
(l-r) Christie Zhao — Photo by Cameron Astor, David Le — Photo by Trang Vo, Sebastian Wang — Courtesy photo

In 2022, when COVID-19 had brought many well-established theater companies to the verge of collapse, Christie Zhao founded Yun Theatre, a bilingual (Mandarin and English), bicultural company dedicated to engaging with societal issues and fostering change. Asked where her bravery came from, Zhao now says, "I didn't know what I was getting into! I knew nothing about producing theater and even less about starting and running a nonprofit."

Yet Yun Theatre is now rehearsing its fourth fully staged production, June Is the First Fall, by playwright Yilong Liu. The play, co-directed by Zhao and David Le, is about a Gay Chinese man who returns to his family's home in Hawai'i ten years after escaping to New York. His return opens up memories and old wounds, revealing the struggles in his family to find love, acceptance, and belonging.

"It's the most personal play we've done so far," said Zhao. Le added, "We were moved to tears during the first rehearsal."

Sebastian Wang, a student in the Professional Actor Training Program at the University of Washington, plays Don, the main role, both as a child and as a man. Wang's gentle demeanor seems perfectly suited to this quiet character, whose conflicts are mostly internal and unspoken.

It's basically a coming-out story, about the difficulties of being Gay in a Chinese immigrant family. These obstacles are still in the foreground for Queer immigrants and Queer children of immigrants. Said Le, "My parents accept Gay people in general, but if their kid was Gay, that's another story." Wang agreed: "When I go back to China and talk with my friends there, Gay life is still pretty much hidden."

In the play, Don's mother, who died many years earlier and appears in his memories and dreams, speaks Mandarin and represents traditional Chinese culture, which Don still loves. His conflicts are dual: between Gay identity and traditional values, and between the West and the East.

Zhao said that one of the central questions addressed in the play is "Why is love in family so difficult and painful, when everyone is craving it?" Wang added, "In a family, we take each other for granted and don't say certain things, but the love is there."

Scenic designer Teia O'Malley was born and raised in Hawai'i, and designed the set and props for a production of this play when she was still in high school. She said that the themes of returning home, searching for home, and remembering home resonate powerfully for her and helped her design the house in which Don's family has lived for a long time.

There will be postperformance talk-backs, programs about the intersection of Queer and Asian identities, and a board in the lobby where audience members can write their reactions to the play. "Every time we do a show, we want to engage with the community," Zhao said.

After interviewing members of the creative team, I felt great respect and admiration for their courage, determination, and sensitivity. I predict that June Is the First Fall will be very much worth seeing.

June Is the First Fall will run July 11-27 at the Theatre Off Jackson. For tickets and more information, visit https://yun-theatre.com