It’s interesting to see familiar patterns of family dynamics in stories about people from different cultures. It reminds us that though we may not come from the same place, we can all relate to a certain extent–there’s a language to families, much like the language of music, that is universal. Indeed, the universality of human experience in Yilong Liu’s June is the First Fall presented by Yangtze Repertory Theatre is what makes this play so compelling.
June is the First Fall is a wonderful slice-of-modern-life story about a family of immigrants from China, their experience in a new country, and one son’s struggle to feel accepted by his family as a gay man. Don (Alton Alburo), who has been living in New York City for the last 10 years, returns to his family home in Hawai’i for the first time since his mother’s death. His older sister, Jane (Stefani Kuo), and her fiancé, Scott (Karsten Otto), live with and take care of their aging father, David (Fenton Li), and help him run the family restaurant.
The ghost of Don and Jane’s mother, Yu Qin (Chun Cho), literally hovers over them. She appears in flashback scenes that are dreamlike but also blend seamlessly into the present day. When she speaks, her voice echoes angelically. She haunts Don, who has some guilt surrounding her death. Yu Qin is in some ways the glue that holds the family together and her memory is honored through family gatherings, but she’s also a frustrating reminder of Don’s coming out and the solid wall of disapproval he came up against.
Director Michael Leibenluft does a good job of teasing out Liu’s complex narrative–which can at times feel like too much exposition and at other times a mite stilted–in an ultimately satisfying way. The other technical aspects of the play, though understated, all help to set the scene, notably the sound editing (Michael Costagliola) that inspires us to imagine we’re on a plane or inside on a rainy Hawaiian day, the intimate set design (Jean Kim) that invites us to relax in the comfort of the family living room, and the lighting design (Cha See) that allows us to distinguish between the dreamscapes and reality.
Yes, the play does contain many Asian stereotypes: The emotionally stilted father, the overbearing mother, the resistance against any path that goes against the traditional, the emphasis on honor in doing right by your family. But when David, in a rare attempt to connect with his estranged son, tells Don his true feelings about what it was like for him when his son came out all those years ago, it resonates. You are able to relate because perhaps you, like most people, have felt the disapproval of family members. At the time it stings and you don’t understand. Then, slowly, it dawns on you that the sentiment often comes from a place of love. It even sometimes comes from a place of shame and is not really about you at all.
While these universal themes are front and center, June is the First Fall also contains a specificity unique to this particular family experience. The title refers to a family tradition of celebrating the Chinese Moon Festival in June, when it is normally mid-September, to mark their arrival in America. This detail makes the play not only realistic (what family doesn’t have its own weird quirks?) but it underscores what the immigrant experience means to this family. It’s important that they retain traditions, yet make it their own, especially when you are far from home and only have each other. That way home becomes this place where your family is, regardless of where on earth that may be.
June is the First Fall runs through April 20 at the New Ohio Theatre.