Arts Dance with Me festival Interview Music Review Singapore Arts, Theatre. Theatre

★★★★☆ Review: Angel Island by Brian Gothong Tan and Huang Ruo (SIFA 2023)

A visually stunning, sobering history lesson of Chinese discrimination in America told through music and song.

Across history, the United States of America has always been seen as a haven for immigrants, welcoming a diverse group of foreigners from around the world with nothing but the dream of a better life. But amidst such glories, America has also been plagued by a nasty streak of racism that makes the journey for some that much more difficult.

Rarely though, has this darker side been taught or made known, and in Angel Island, composer Huang Ruo and multimedia artist Brian Gothong Tan join forces to educate audiences on the struggle through a combination of devastating music and sobering visuals. Focusing specifically on anti-Chinese rhetoric in the USA, Angel Island takes its name and inspiration from the locale in San Francisco known for being an immigration station for anyone coming from Asia, and charts the heavy price for chasing one’s dreams.

Angel Island is told through eight distinct scenes, each with a single choral or instrumental song that expresses a specific instance of anti-Chinese history, from discriminatory acts to the suffering one experienced in the detention centre on the island. From a visual standpoint, Angel Island is a stark but stunning work that handles its material with respect and seriousness, while imbuing it with a dark, atmospheric beauty.

Right from the beginning, Angel Island draws us into its world with the Del Sol Quartet and Huang Ruo coming out onstage, and taking their places upon a single white circle in the centre, a literal island surrounded by water. It is clear that the music is always the point of focus in this work, and as they play, a Caucasian man (Jason Carter) arrives onstage to take a seat at the table beside them, with tiny cut-out images of people slain in the Chinese Massacre of 1871. As he reads off their names, like an obituary, the Taipei Chamber Singers enter one by one, dressed in funereal black, each one representing one of the deceased, as a live video feed projects their faces on the blank backdrop behind.

It is with this heavy heart that Angel Island begins its journey, as we’re taken through one harrowing event after another to understand the plight of the Chinese in America. Alternating between instrumental string music and choral singing in each scene, these styles of music are also paired with a specific narrative throughout the show, where the former deals with factual knowledge and information, while the latter follows the journeys and experiences of these migrants to, on and back from Angel Island, with the words taken from Chinese poetry carved into the walls of the detention centre.

Huang Ruo’s music has been composed and tailor-made to perfectly match each scene, ranging from the intense to the eulogistic. In the very first scene for example, hearing of the deaths of these Chinese innocents, the music is sombre and funereal, deeply serious as their names are read out and memorialised. Elsewhere, we are bombarded onscreen by an extract from a racist book about stereotypical views of the Chinese, the backdrop red as the Quartet’s playing becomes more frenzied and tense, reflecting the fear and panic plaguing America.

While the musicians form the basis of the performance, it is when the music is layered with additional elements that continually elevate and raise the aesthetic effect of the production further still. When the Taipei Chamber Singers come in, their voices are haunting as they harmonise, distorting and stretching each word of the poems to form an all-encompassing, sonorous soundscape, bringing to mind vast oceans crossed and turbulent seas endured. During these scenes, Huang Ruo also takes on the conductor’s role, his hands impassioned, waving furiously as he guides his musicians.

And with Brian Gothong Tan, the multimedia elements also play a key role in helping us visualise these experiences from the past, whether it’s a monochrome view of ocean waves, a claustrophobic walking tour of the detention centres, closed off from the outside world, or faced with The Page Act of 1875, prohibiting the entry of Chinese women. As we hear a voiceover reading out the act, describing how Chinese women were subject to interrogation for fear they would spread disease via sex work, dancer Ma Yanling is placed on a literal pedestal, a camera zooming in on her face and projecting it onto the screen such that we see every emotion. The intrusive questions flow, and her face contorts into one of worry, slowly stripping down one layer after another, until she is left shivering and vulnerable for all to see, and to understand the innate sexism of the act.

For all its beauty in pain, one of Angel Island‘s greatest flaws is its lack of sustained emotion throughout the show, such that we understand the inherent emotions of these migrants, yet cannot fully experience and empathise with them. Many of the scenes, while done well, have a tendency to go on just a little too long, revisiting and hammering home the same point over and over again, with refrains within the same scene that keep coming back. Even in the instrumental music scenes, the amount of information thrust upon audience members often comes fast and furious, overwhelming rather than felt.

That being said, one of the most effective scenes throughout the performance shows the peak of what these collaborators can achieve. Riffing off a poem titled ‘Buried Beneath Clay and Earth’, the scene surrounds what happens when a migrant perishes on the island, and their fellow migrants mourn their death. Yanling curls up on a movable platform, and the Taipei Chamber Singers form a funeral procession, singing an eulogy as they guide the platform around the stage. Behind is only light, reducing them to silhouettes, as we are left wondering how many nameless migrants have been lost to history, the only ones to remember them the ones that lived at the time, their bodies buried in a foreign land they never belonged to.

In its final moments, the migrants find themselves in a depressingly absurd position, sent back to their home countries after being detained for months and years, all their effort wasted as the visual of the ocean warps and spins behind them. How do you live on with so much wasted time and energy? There is no real answer as Angel Island draws to a close, its difficult material weighing heavy on us as the performers take their bows. As the opening show for the 2023 Singapore International Festival of Arts, we think of how it establishes the inequalities and injustices of life, that some people before us have suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortunes to ensure our lives today are that much better. And we wonder how many refugees out there still face the same discrimination, their light of hope fading from rejection and repatriation, and pray that they too will find a brighter future to come, if only we’d learn to empathise.

Photo Credit: Moonrise Studio

Angel Island played from 19th to 20th May 2023 at Singtel Waterfront Theatre. More information available here

The 2023 Singapore International Festival of Arts runs from 19th May to 4th June 2023. Tickets and full details of programme available here

Production Credits:

Huang Ruo (United States) | Composer, Conductor, Co-director
Brian Gothong Tan (Singapore) | Co-director, Set Conceptualiser, Multimedia Artist
Del Sol Quartet | Performers
Charlton Lee (Viola)
Benjamin Kreith (Violin)
Hyeyung Sol Yoon (Violin)
Kathryn Bates (Cello)
Taipei Chamber Singers | Production Collaborator, Performers
Cheng Cheng-Che, Cheng I-Lin, Cheng Yu-Hsi, Cheng Yi-Shen, Cherly Susanti, Chuang Hao-Wei, Chung Yi-Hsiu, Chong Wei Min, Fang Su-Jen, Ho Woan-Ning, Hsieh Chu-Ching, Koh Tuan Hoe, Lee Chun-Ping, Pan Guo-Ching, Tu Wei, Yuan Yih
Ma Yanling | Performer
Jason Carter | Performer
Allister Towndrow | Set and Props Designer
Gabriel Chan | Lighting Designer
Shah Tahir | Sound Engineer
Max Tan | Costume Designer
Ashley Lim | Hair
Bobbie Ng | Make-Up
Tennie Su | Production Manager
Ian Tan | Technical Manager
Ng Siaw Hui | Stage Manager
Alethea Koh, Ng Biyu | Assistant Stage Managers
M.Nurfadhli Jasni | Multimedia Assistant
Lim Zhiying | Wardrobe Assistant

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