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‘The Far Country’ Explores Memory, Family and Angel Island’s Detention Horrors

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A Chinese man speaks while determinedly making a fist against a backdrop of black with bright green Chinese lettering
Tommy Bo (Moon Gyet) and Whit K. Lee (Yip/One) in Lloyd Suh’s 'The Far Country' at Berkeley Rep. (Kevin Berne)

What if walls could talk?

In the case of Angel Island, the walls do in fact talk. Imprisoned upon arrival in the early 20th century, Chinese immigrants etched their pain into the walls as poetry that has been preserved for posterity.

Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s harrowing production of Lloyd Suh’s Pulitzer-finalist play The Far Country exists in a world where even the most remote and desolate land carries its own richness. The play’s magic, exposed by Jennifer Chang’s exquisite direction, is that it feels epic in scope, beautifully balanced between struggle, hope and decadent artistry.

Feodor Chin (Gee/Three), Aaron Wilton (Harriwell/Interpreter), and Whit K. Lee (Yip/One) in Lloyd Suh’s ‘The Far Country’ at Berkeley Rep. (Kevin Berne)

The play begins on Angel Island, in the San Francisco Bay, in 1909. It’s 27 years after the implementation of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which severely limited Chinese immigration and brought horrific consequences.

Despite the conventional belief that Angel Island functioned similarly to Ellis Island in New York, the island was primarily a detention center, devoid of any romanticism for those yearning to breathe free. It is there where we first meet Gee (Feodor Chin) as he is interrogated by an American inspector (John Keebler), assisted by his interpreter (Aaron Wilton).


Gee is charming and funny, stating that his paperwork proving American citizenship was destroyed in the infamous earthquake three years earlier. Through Chin’s commitment to each critical moment, Gee moves from professional groveler to shrewd businessman in the span of the exchange, making one wonder about his authenticity. Is he the soft soul that made the grizzled, white inspector smile, or a soulless heathen only interested in favorable transactions — or both?

Tess Lina (Low/Two) and Tommy Bo (Moon Gyet) in Lloyd Suh’s ‘The Far Country’ at Berkeley Rep. (Kevin Berne)

Having gained passage back to China, Gee makes a tempting offer to a widow, Low (Tess Lina). For a hefty fee, most of which is free labor, Gee will take Low’s son Moon Gyet (Tommy Bo) to the United States, where labor will become currency in the freedom of a new land. In multiple scenes, Lina oscillates between heartache and pragmatism, informed by each calculated thought with a regal smoothness.

It’s a pact with the devil, to be sure, and one where admission isn’t guaranteed — even the devil might not be able to crack Angel Island inspectors’ relentless interrogation. Admission for Moon Gyet and the many other Chinese migrants trying to enter the steel doors of America is dependent on the tiniest of details: How many steps were at your house? How about the steps at your school? Are these lies? Don’t they all lie?

Suh’s use of language and translation in these scenes is exceptional, where exacting words in Angel Island’s interrogation room by both inspector and translator spoken within seconds of each other is a balancing act of delicate precision.

Tommy Bo (Moon Gyet) and Sharon Shao (Yuen/Four) in Lloyd Suh’s ‘The Far Country’ at Berkeley Rep. (Kevin Berne)

Bo portrays Moon Gyet’s high-stakes game with steely, sharp resolve. Moon Gyet later makes his own transactional offer to Yuen (Sharon Shao): a marriage proposal that, as it turns out, dismisses her hopes of lifelong love (shaking hands after accepting the offer will do that). Shao plays tender and skittish charm beautifully, serving as an effective foil for Moon Gyet’s scheming.

As director, Chang is best when creating savory tableaus, pacing each moment with what’s necessary. In her hands, not only does the drama provide tension, but offers artistry and a clean blend of humor necessary for the audience to take a breath and process.

Moments within Angel Island are loaded with desperate warmth, the details filled with artistic strokes incorporating Minjoo Kim’s wonderful lighting design. It is there where the hope of a people, those whose poetry sustained them within the most soul-crushing circumstances, rises beyond the clay that covers each word.

The story’s denouement offers critical lessons with humane subtlety. As one grows and ages, the totality of a life is clearest just before the memory starts to fade. No one will live forever, but a legacy can. Just listen to the walls — they will tell all.

‘The Far Country’ runs now through April 14 at Berkeley Rep. Details here.

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