Through January 29, Hong Kong native Jennifer Lim stars as Xi Yan– a shrewd and sexy Chinese businesswoman– in Broadway's "Chinglish." Learn how this relentlessly funny play is expanding theater's cultural horizons and why you should try to catch it this weekend.
What was your process of getting involved with “Chinglish”?
I got involved in 2009, December, when David [Henry Hwang] had just written the first act of the play. I actually found out on Facebook about it. [Laughs] They were looking for bilingual actors just to read the play, him and [director] Leigh Silverman just wanted to hear it. I was brought in and every time they did another reading or workshop, they invited me back, until the Chicago production back in June.
Were you always reading for the same role?
Yes, they just never really heard anyone else to do it.
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Did anyone else in the cast come from the Chicago run?
Yes, most of them did.
You’re originally from Hong Kong. Do you find the play to be an accurate portrayal of personal relationships, especially in the business environment?
Absolutely, yeah, absolutely. If you speak to anybody who’s been to China who’s come to see this play, they’ll tell you they absolutely identify, and it resonates. It was written [as] a very timely and accurate depiction of the kind of things that can befall you when Americans go to China.
Comedy can skew toward mockery sometimes, to get the laughs.
I think the character that I play is … such an originally drawn character, and she’s so complex. There are so many angles to her. Every time the audience feels like they know who she is, you then see another side of her – all the way through to the end. I think David’s written characters that maybe, when you first meet them, they seem like stereotypes, except he sort of turns that on its head quite quickly. It’s a lot of fun.
And it’s a strong role for a woman.
It’s incredibly liberating, actually. She’s so strong and smart and funny and sexy. She’s so human, you know? Flaws and all. … David’s [put] Chinese characters onstage speaking their native tongue. So my character does speak Chinglish, bad English, but you also hear her speak her native tongue. These are all smart characters, they’re more than the 2-D stereotypes that you might otherwise find. It’s so great. She’s so recognizable. When I first started working on the play, I knew who she was immediately. I grew up surrounded by women with a lot of the qualities that she has: the strength, the steeliness. [They’re] practical, no-nonsense women.
But at the same time, that impedes her from her relationships – the fact she’s so complex. Do you feel she ultimately gets what she wants?
No, I don’t feel it impedes her. I feel she’s someone who knows exactly what she’s doing and why she’s doing what she’s doing. She is somebody who has very strong convictions and knows who she is and has made sense [of], made peace [with] the choices that she’s made and [she’s] happy to stand by them. Does she question them? In the second monologue she has, where she talks about the choices she’s made, [she wonders if she’s] better off than her ancestors. … I think the irony isn’t lost on her, but when push comes to shove, she’s clear that the relationship that she has with Daniel, the American businessman … she knows what that is. So it’s her rediscovering the woman inside her and what it is to fall in love and revel in those feelings that I think she hasn’t had in her marriage in many, many years. But at the end of the day, it’s still her commitment to her husband and her family and her country that takes priority over her love affair.
Do you think your character would enjoy “Chinglish”?
I think so! I mean, I think “Chinglish” is such a smart play. … [David] is pretty even-handed making as much fun of the Chinese as he is of the Americans. He’s always said it’s through laughter [that] you can bring audiences together.
A lot of my friends have come to see it and been impressed by how many Asians there are in the theater watching the show. They’re not your regular theater audiences. I think they come to see it because they’re curious to see what this play is. … And the response that we’ve been getting every show is uproarious laughter. It doesn’t matter if you’re American or Chinese, I think the humor transcends a culture.
Do you think there’s a lack of Asian representation in entertainment?
Yes, I do. I think it’s been changing, especially in film and TV. There are more and more Asians, if you look at shows like “Lost” and “Grey’s Anatomy” and some of these big TV shows. The networks are starting to realize they need to show what’s happening in real life. I think that in theater’s a little bit behind TV and film right now, which is really odd, because usually theater would be ahead. But I think that’s changing. … There’s actually a couple of shows on Broadway this season that have roles for Asian women in them. There’s the Theresa Rebeck play, “Seminar,” that Alan Rickman is in, that has a Korean woman in it. There’s a show opening at Lincoln Center, “4000 Miles,” that also has an Asian character in it.
It’s not there yet. I think it’s changing, but it’s definitely not there yet. But I think people are starting to catch on. I think it’s more exciting and it’s more current. [It’s a] more accurate representation of what’s happening in the world, [of] globalization.