I want to say a lot about Macho Bravado, an in-house work premiering with Asian American Theater Company. I want to say it has some uneven bits. The doctor character, for example, is kind of a wuss. Also I have to wonder if we needed an old Western, broadcast from a television onstage, to bludgeon home the central theme of the play -- macho bravado, in case anyone had missed it.
But what I want to say most of all is that this production has heart.
Overall, it’s an impressive script with a beautiful cast of characters, played to an especially disturbing affect by Michael Uy Kelly as Evan, Brian O’Connor as the father-in-law, and Janice Wright as the mother-in-law. Playwright Alex Park, a member of AATC’s NewWorks Incubator Program, has written a main character timely to Asian American viewers and basically to everyone else too, which is hard. Evan is a Korean American from Wyoming, who must prove his manhood to his woman, his father-in-law, and to himself.
This is where the macho bravado comes in. While still in Wyoming, Evan rides a wild horse and gains the respect of every man in town as well as the adoration of the prettiest girl, who will later become his wife. He attends West Point and then completes three tours of duty to best his Vietnam veteran father-in-law, who completed two. When he returns home, it is to Palo Alto where his wife works at a start-up. He arrives with a silver star, a bum leg, and some paternity questions. See, he’s pretty sure his new baby isn’t his.
This is where the play begins. And it is around this lynch pin, this absolute physical manifestation of whether or not Evan is a man, that the play turns. It’s ironic, you see, who the father turns out to be. The man who fertilized (yes, I just said fertilize) his wife is not much of a “real man,” according to Evan. So the play moves us in this direction, asking us to question what the public commonly posits as strong and potent, and then asking us to think differently.
In one of the final scenes, Evan’s father-in-law, who has spent the play goading Evan into extremes of machoism, has what is known as a war moment—a moment in which time reverses and one is taken back to the front. He calls out for his wife; she comes running, and he reveals a horror he has just remembered. “How could I have forgotten?” he warbles, staring into her eyes, “What sort of human being forgets a thing like this?” He ejects himself off the bench where he is sitting, yelling that he understands if she wants a divorce. She follows him and grasps his head between her hands. They lock eyes. She holds him.
In a scene prior to this, Evan’s wife, Lindsey, claims she wants a divorce. At this point the question of paternity is out and Lindsey is telling everyone that she is not a whore, despite the fact that no one has called her one. Evan has gone back to Wyoming for a time. But her mother is in their Palo Alto living room. “Honey,” her mother replies, “he needs you.” Lindsey denies this and then rounds on her mother, calling her “weak” and a “sweet” someone her father has always needed to save. But in a direct juxtaposition of dialogue and scene, it is Lindsey who cries out “Don’t leave me!” as Evan picks up his last bag and begins to walk out the door.
This play works because Park sets up a super-masculine male prototype, assigns it to an Asian male body, and then successfully knocks over both categories of stereotypes. His method seems to be 1) Make an Asian American male super-steak-and-potatoes-y; 2) Then emasculate his hyper-masculinity; Finally 3) Stick masculinity back together with, well, love. At the end, Evan discovers compassion and uncertainty with Lindsey, all bravado gone. There's a really beautiful moment. But you'll have to attend to see it.
Finally, I have not mentioned the quiet sense of satisfaction I felt purely from viewing an Asian American character from Wyoming onstage. I am certain this makes me shallow.