The Mark Taper Forum’s newest Improvisational Theatre Project offering is Janet Thomas’ funny and poignant “Newcomer,” performed over the weekend at the Taper Too.
Mai Li, just arrived from a refugee camp, has entered an American junior high school. Her father was killed in Vietnam, her mother is unable to leave that country. Mai Li speaks no English.
Entering junior high school can be intimidating for any child, yet the strangeness wears off quickly for most. But according to the study guide accompanying each public school presentation of the play, 87 languages are now spoken in public schools in Los Angeles County. Thousands of Vietnamese refugees join other immigrants in a struggle to adapt to a new culture.
Help is not always forthcoming, whether due to lack of interest or lack of funds.
Thomas’ play, directed with sensitive skill by Peter C. Brosius, illustrates the difficulties clearly.
Mai Li hears the language spoken around her as incomprehensible noise and even a soft-drink can is an alien object.
People, young and old, speak to her loudly and slowly as if she wasn’t bright, ignore her or make fun of her. She must deal with terrifying memories of war and the violent loss of her family.
She withdraws, retaining a fragile sense of dignity and self in the memories of her own country at peace. The noise around her fades, the lights go down and delicate Asian music plays as figures of her mother, a farmer and a dancer are silhouetted on a white screen.
“Newcomer” features a top quality professional cast, headed by Miho who plays Mai Li. Hauntingly eloquent in face and body, Miho vividly expresses Mai Li’s isolation and a touching desire to fit in with her peer group.
Another newcomer, Aurora from the Philippines, is played by Karen Maruyama. Wide-eyed, irrepressibly bouncy, Maruyama has hilarious moments, none more so than her demonstration of the art of applying makeup.
As American-born Benny, who finds his Chinese heritage embarrassing and denies it as much as possible behind a wise-cracking, clownish front, Jerry Tondo makes plain the hurt behind the humor.
Authority figures are Jay Varela as Jesus Escamilla, a compassionate teacher whose own difficult experiences as a non-English speaking student make him alert to Mai Li’s pain, and Virginia Wing as the brisk Mrs. Kato, a third-generation American, impatiently mispronouncing Mai Li’s name.
ITP’s “Newcomer” makes its point. Mai Li’s shocking reaction to a fire drill opens the eyes of her peers and leads to a sharing of two different cultures. That change can come about through understanding is an optimistic message for the young people of a troubled and increasingly complex society.
Effective set design is credited to Rob Murphy. Daniel Birnbaum did the original music and sound, Gary Mascaro the smooth choreography. Colorful costumes are by Armand Coutu.