Review: Family, Heritage, and Sexuality Collide in "June is the First Fall"
June is the First Fall
Written by Yilong Liu
Directed by Michael Leibenluft
Presented by Yangtze Repertory Theatre of America at the New Ohio Theatre
March 31-April 20, 2019
|L to R: Alton Alburo, Chun Cho, Karsten Otto, and Stefani Kuo in June is the First Fall. Photo Credit: Maria Baranova
One of the first sounds that the audience hears in Yangtze Repertory Theatre of America’s production of Yilong Liu’s June is the First Fall is the engines of a jetliner, as young, gay Chinese man Don (Alton Alburo) returns from New York City to his family home in Hawai’i’s Manoa Valley. Don’s flight stands in for the various cross-cultural and geographical axes that impact the characters in this play; and with June is the First Fall, second-prize winner of the Kennedy Center’s 2017 Paula Vogel Playwriting Award, making its New York premier, Yangtze Rep, in its 27th year, “hope[s] to give more prominence to queer Asian and Asian-American narratives” in a year that also marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark Stonewall Rebellion. While the narrative of this superbly acted production is straightforward—a son’s homecoming forces him to confront the very lingering, unresolved issues that he had attempted to escape by leaving—the complexities of sexual, cultural, and familial identity that it explores are anything but.
Don, who left Hawai’i for college and did not come back even when his father was hospitalized, is making the trip from an island of skyscrapers and traffic jams to one of volcanic craters, waterfalls, and (ironically, Don remarks) rainbows because his family is moving from his childhood house to a larger one purchased by his father, David (Fenton Li). Part of the rationale for the move is that the engagement of Don’s sister, Jane (Stefani Kuo) to Scott (Karsten Otto), a former crush of Don’s and current employee of David’s at his restaurant, brings with it the possibility of an expanding family. David met his late wife, Yu Qin (Chun Cho) on a trip back to China and had to wait years before he was able to send for his family to join him in Hawai’i. Even then, as a hard-working small business owner, he was often an absent husband and father, and when Don came out to his family as a teenager, the reception of his revelation precipitated both what Jane characterizes as his abandonment of his family and a guilt that he still carries when the play begins.
At one point, Don speaks of living different versions of himself, neither of which feels authentic, and the difficulties of navigating identity that he touches on are central to the play. He wonders how his mother, an intelligent and knowledgeable woman, felt about being constrained to express herself in English. At the same time, his mother said that a second language is a second pair of eyes through which to see the world. Don himself does not actively reject learning more about his heritage, including Chinese orthography, but as someone who immigrated as a young child, he cannot, as his father points out, pronounce the family name correctly, and, as Don points out, Chinese does not have a “right” word for gay. These complexities are not limited to Don’s family: Scott, who is white but was adopted by an indigenous family, has had his own issues related to his family and heritage. We see David’s discomfort with emotional vulnerability early on in his reaction to Don saying he missed him on the drive from the airport, but as the two begin to reconnect (that Don’s trendy NYC clothes fail to return after the very earliest scenes is subtly significant), David opens up about his own past, although at least one instance of this father-son bonding backfires. In the end, though, as Don implies with symbolic import, the riskier hikes can turn out to be more beautiful in the end. While, the play tells us, connections to places and people—Don periodically sees his mother as a memory and/or spirit—are very resilient, those connections can also be part of a larger adaptation, emblematized in the importance of this particular family’s unseasonable celebration of the Chinese Moon Festival and how it both marks their individual history and shows the way forward.
The performances, framed by Cha See’s expressive lighting design, are uniformly outstanding. Alburo’s turn as Don is never less than utterly believable, engaging, and nuanced. Li brings depth to his sympathetic portrayal of David’s struggle to relate to a son whose life is alien to him in more ways than one, as does Kuo to Jane’s mix of love for and residual anger at her brother and her sometimes prickly but consistently caring relation with Karsten’s Scott. Karsten and Alburo also create an easy closeness between Scott and Don that makes clear why Don would have felt romantically towards his friend, while Karsten skillfully shades Scott’s status as family but not quite Family, and Cho as Yu Qin shines as a character whose present absence suffuses the entire play. June is the First Fall is a funny, affecting and affectionate, and well-observed family drama that addresses timely issues with deep historical roots. Audiences would do well to make June part of their April.
-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards