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TBA Online: News & Features: September 2017

Eugenie Chan Tells the Story

Tuesday, September 19, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: TBA Staff
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by Sam Hurwitt

Playwright Eugenie Chan isn’t just a San Francisco native. Her family’s been here since the Gold Rush. In fact, those early days are the subject of her play Madame Ho, which has won Theatre Bay Area’s Rella Lossy Award for its upcoming world premiere at the Exit Theatre. 

A program of Theatre Bay Area, the Rella Lossy Award is intended to honor the best new script of a play by an emerging playwright that’s set to premiere in the Bay Area in the upcoming year. The award goes both to the playwright ($2,500) and the producing theatre company ($1,000). Emerging playwrights are defined as ones who have not yet had a play produced on Broadway or at a LORT theatre company.

“It couldn’t have come at a better time, because we could use that funding for the production, Chan says. “The timing is just awesome.”

Eugenie Chan. Photo by Joe Zygaj.

Chan is self-producing the premiere under the aegis of Eugenie Chan Theater Projects and 6 New Plays, a project of six Bay Area playwrights to produce...well, six new plays. After its world premiere run, October 5-21 at the Exit, the show goes on to play three free community performances at Cameron House, a faith-based social service organization serving San Francisco Chinatown youth that was founded in 1874 by the Presbyterian Church as the Occidental Mission Home for Girls to provide a refuge for Asian immigrant victims of human trafficking. 

That history makes Madame Ho a particularly appropriate piece to perform at Cameron House. Chan’s play is inspired by the long-buried story of her great-grandmother, an immigrant brothel madam in the notorious Barbary Coast days of 19th century San Francisco. 

“It’s constructed as a play within a play,” Chan says. “It’s Ho with her right-hand woman, Crow, who’s like her aide-de-camp. They’re the ones who conjure up the women like Ho’s daughter to tell this story. It’s Ho’s personal reckoning: I made it in America; was it worth it? I succeeded in raising my daughter ‘right’; was it worth it? She has the opportunity of being tutored by the missionaries, she gets to go to church, I supported her, I’m going to empower her, spoil her a little. Was it worth it to traffic these women—I don’t know if she would say exploit these women, but exploit these women—was this all worth it? What is the cost? That’s really what the play’s about.”

The cast of Madam Ho at a recent rehearsal. Photo courtesy of Eugenie Chan.

Madame Ho has been a long time coming. The Cutting Ball Theater did a workshop production as part of its Risk Is This... new experimental plays festival way back in 2011. In that time, it’s become part of a trilogy of plays about Chan’s family, along with The Chan Family Picnic and Kitchen Table. This summer Chan was in Berkeley Rep’s new plays development lab the Ground Floor working on The Chan Family Picnic (formerly called 19 Wentworth Alley, Chinatown), a play about her grandfather as a Stanford medical student and son of a Chinatown madam, newly reimagined as a nouvelle vaudeville with music by Byron Au Yong.

Though she’s lived elsewhere for a few years here and there, Chan’s deep San Francisco roots always pulled her back home. 

“I was in New York a bit for grad school and then a little bit afterward, and I thought, oh, maybe I should stay in New York, because that’s where theatre is,” she says. “But I realized so many of my stories emanate from the West Coast. I’m of this place. I’m so wedded to it. This is where my heart and my soul is and my artistic juices are. So I always come back. Always, always, always. I’ve always seen the Bay Area as a really interesting mix of races, cultures, ethnicities, politics. It’s my home. My family has been here now for like six generations. That means a lot to me, and I really like honoring it. It feels right artistically, it feels right as a person, it feels right as a storyteller who has been given the opportunity and privilege to be a storyteller because of what previous generations have done. I mean, it’s only because of what they have done—their jobs, their immigration—that I’m able to have the opportunity to tell these stories. So it feels right to be here telling these stories, or telling whatever stories I tell.”

Madame Ho plays the Exit Theatre October 5-21. Visit eugeniechantheater.org for info.

Sam Hurwitt is a freelance theater journalist and occasional playwright based in the East Bay. You can follow him at twitter.com/shurwitt