“Why do I have to die so you can learn your lesson?” says Kim (Chacha Tahng), the ill-fated character from the Tony Award-winning musical Miss Saigon, in Preston Choi’s This is Not a True Story. She continues on her tirade with her fellow doomed counterparts, CioCio (Julia Cho) from the tragic Madame Butterfly, and Kumiko (Jo Yuan) from the 2014 film, Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter.
“Why did I always obey you?”
“Why did you want to have sex with a fifteen year old girl?”
“Why were all the other girls considered whores, but because I “actually” loved my soldier I was worthy of saving?”
“Why is our tragedy entertaining to you?”
“Why do you keep watching us?”
These are valid questions coming from the three fictional Asian characters, who were all written by white men, fated to tragically commit suicide over the loss of their American lovers.
Directed by Reena Dutt, This is Not a True Story tells the story of CioCio, Kim, and Kumiko who are forced to replay their lives — and trauma — over and over again in what they call “the Void.” Like a page in a script, they are forced to recite their lines from their stories or face an angry voice harshly telling them, “That’s Not Your Line.”
Though the idea of reliving this pain sounds like a dark drama, This is Not a True Story adds some levity to feel like a dark comedy instead by giving the three characters their own personalities and humor– one that was never granted to them before. CioCio annoyingly counts the many replays of her life — realizing her lover is a bad man and, actually, not handsome at all. “His hair is like corn,” she hilariously recalls. “Yellow corn. His eyes are blue round circles with black circles inside of them.”
Other funny moments included the use of baby dolls as the children that CioCio and Kim give birth throughout the story, which is traumatizing at first, but is later seen as a funny bit. For one amusing scene, the babies are parachuted attached to stereotypical props that represent Japan and Vietnam.
Cho, Tahng, and Yan beautifully weave between the characters they were originally created for and the personalities they develop outside the script. But it is Cho and Tahng in the first act that naturally draws you into this story. Their graceful transition from “reading — or for Tahng’s case, singing — the script” to the frustration and anger they feel stuck in the loop is humorous at times, but also disheartening to know they’re forever stuck in this tale written about them. It’s a sad reminder of the roles Asian women were stereotyped into — the young, beautiful Asian woman who needed to be saved by her white foreign lover and despite having so much to live for (mainly, a child), they kill themselves at the thought of not being with their lover. Or, for white writers’ minds, the characters were “dying for an honorable reason”.
Though these stories were written in the past — early 1900s for Madame Butterfly and the 1980s with Miss Saigon, the addition of Kumiko represents these ideas and archetypes of the past still present in today’s media.
But, when the play does add Kumiko at the end of the second act, the pacing slowed down a little too much because many in the audience, like myself, have no knowledge of the existence of Kumiko: Treasure Hunter. The false narrative of Kumiko and how it ties into the real-life tragedy of Takako Konishi didn’t make much sense until it was explained in the end. But, once it was all explained, it hit deep with the realization that our tragedies are still entertainment for others.
Madame Butterfly and Miss Saigon are still being performed all over the world. Takako’s death happened in 2001, but only 13 years later, a movie was developed with the false attestation that Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter is “based on a true story.” That is where the title of the play, This is Not a True Story, came from — a way to retell the Asian heroine’s narrative through the eyes of an Asian person — or in this case, Choi, who understands the history of Orientalism that plagues Asians and Asian Americans in Western media.
Overall, This is Not a True Story is an eye-opener that uses subtle humor and the crude truth of our history surrounding the stereotypes forced upon Asian women and how it’s still affecting us to this day. Yet, the play doesn’t stuff this lesson or hard truth down your throat. Instead, it’s very reflective and ends on a hopeful message that we as Asian women can write our story and happy ending.
In association with Artists At Play and the Latino Theater Company, This is Not a True Story has performances taking place on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m. through October 15.
Tickets range from $22–$48, except opening night which is $58 and includes pre- and post-performance receptions, and previews, which are Pay-What-You-Will starting at $10.
The Los Angeles Theatre Center is located at 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles, CA 90013. Parking is available for $8 with box office validation at Joe’s Parking structure, 530 S. Spring St. (immediately south of the theater).
For more information and to purchase tickets, call (213) 489-0994 or go to www.latinotheaterco.org.