BY Mei-Yu Liu
At the Signature Theatre, the stage lights slowly illuminated the darkness.
Yi Ling, portrayed by Lesley Hu, was dressed in her red traditional Chinese gown, kneeling down on the ground, worshipping her deceased parents. The third wife of a business man, Tieng Bin, in Hokkien, China, she prayed that her husband would still love her after he returned from the Philippines. After a long struggle depicted in David Henry Hwang’s award-winning play, “Golden Child,” Tieng Bin finally adopted a modern, western lifestyle, and baptized his family into the Christian faith. Yi Ling converted to Christianity out of love for her husband, but she never gave up the Chinese tradition of worshipping the ghosts of her ancestors.
Hu, who stars as Yi Ling, had an acting career in Taiwan before making her stage debut here in the off-Broadway production of “Golden Child,” which began previews Oct. 23 and opens on Nov. 13. She said she can relate to her character being caught between the values of East and West. Born in Dallas, Texas but raised in Taipei, Taiwan, the 27-year-old Hu said she learned the difficulty of transitioning from one culture to another.
“I’m like a contradiction of the difference between East and West,” she said.
Hu comes from one of the few English-speaking, Christian households in Taiwan. Though living a modern lifestyle, her upper-class parents opposed her dream of becoming an actress. Taiwanese society preserves a large part of traditional Chinese culture, and actors are considered one of the lowest social classes — so Hu majored in communications at Syracuse University, instead of enrolling in the musical course that kept calling her.
“After four years, I found that I really wanted to be an actress, or I’ll regret it for the rest of my life,” Hu said.
She made up her mind to go back to Taiwan, and pursued every acting opportunity she could get.
In Taiwan, she was often labelled as “too aggressive” when negotiating with entertainment agent companies. She spoke in an American style: direct, organized, radically different from the way in which the traditional Taiwanese agencies worked. When shooting a television series, she encountered a hierarchy among the crew that prohibited her and other young actors from communicating with the director. “We could only follow whatever the director wanted us to do,” she said.
Once she began her career as an actress, the difference between the East and the West became more pronounced. After a frustrating four years, she decided to fly to New York in 2012, and auditioned for “Golden Child.”
“I could’t believe that I really got the part!” she said. “But the different ways of working indeed gave me a culture shock.”
She felt exhilarated by the free, collaborative way the off-Broadway theatre works.
Leigh Silverman, the director, chose Hu to play the part because she provided a strong contrast to the actresses who play the first and second wives.” “Lesley embodies the sweetness, youth and beauty of third wife,” said Silverman.
In preparing for the role, Hu was amazed at the level of communcation between actor and director.
“Leigh gave us space to act in our own ways. If she liked the direction we went into, she simply improved us in details. The playwright, David, also sat beside us to adjust the play while we did the table reading together,” recalled Hu.
However, she sometimes found herself reverting to Taiwanese hierarchical ways. Though the other actors are also Asian Americans, Hu is the only one raised in Asia.
“The experience in Taiwan still impacted me. I found myself hesitating on trying various ways of acting without the order from the director, unlike other actors. They enjoyed playing with all kinds of interpretation,” she said.
Hu tried to adjust her mindset to enjoy the process. In Asian society, the outcome takes the first priority, but in America, the process is what people emphasize.
“A part of me is still traditional. I chose the outcome as my priority,” she said.
Silverman praised Hu’s devotion to the play. “Lesley has been totally enthusiastic, cooperative, interested in learning and a very hard worker. She is very dedicated and that outweighs any cultural differences there might be,” she said.
Jing Lu, one of the assistant producers of “Golden Child,” described Hu as a “diligent actress.” “She even stayed in the theatre to practice by herself while everyone has left,” said Lu.
In Taiwan, the theatre production is split into two extremes: Huge productions for audiences of more than 2,000, and experimental theatres for a small group of people. The former productions take nearly all the governmental and corporate resources, while the latter have little beyond their passion. Hu experienced both.
Her friend, playwright Timothy Huang, attended the dress rehearsal and said that Hu fits the role because she depicts the uncertainty of this character. “Lesley brought an unparalleled uncertainty … to the character that made her very likable and vulnerable,” he said.
Now that she has discovered a more even balance between East and West in her acting, Hu expressed some relief.
“I think I can start to enjoy the process from now on,” said Hu.