Despite outstanding progress regarding de jure laws in favor of LGBTQIA+ rights across the globe, the goal of de facto social acceptance for all still feels like an uphill, Sisyphean struggle. To quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “No code of conduct ever compelled a father to love his children… The law court may force him to provide bread for the family, but it cannot make him provide the bread of love.”
A solution to this conundrum is presented in Joel Tan’s “Tango” at Pride Arts, directed by Carol Ann Tan. “Tango” addresses the social stigmatization toward gay people in the context of modern-day Singapore.
Ten years earlier, native Singaporean Kenneth (G. Hao Lee) and British expat Liam (Mike Newquist) fell in love, got married and made a life together in Britain. Kenneth’s position in a large company gives them the opportunity to return to Singapore with their adopted son, Jayden (Luke Gerdes), and temporarily live with Kenneth’s father, Richard (Cai Yong), with whom the father-son relationship had long been estranged.
A clandestine incident at a local restaurant sets off a chain of events that rattle the entire island country. While Kenneth, Liam, Jayden and longtime friend Elaine (Carolyn Hu Bradbury) are waiting to order food, waitress Pho Lin (Rainey Song) refuses to serve them. This launches Kenneth into a rage-filled tirade, which is captured on video and disseminated via social media, sparking protests.
But justice can be a double-edged sword. Kenneth’s actions put his family in the spotlight and makes them the target of bigots; meanwhile, Pho Lin’s nephew, Benmin (Oscar Hew), struggles to align his identity as a gay man with the politics of those liberal-minded activists whose intolerance of his “Auntie” goes against the ostensible principles of love and acceptance that they vehemently preach. In short, a moment of justice has wrought long-term havoc.
It is Elaine who exhibits the most sense by forging a relationship with Pho Lin, an arduous process that proves a more fruitful tactic in the end.
The presentation is outstanding. The audience sits on either side of a long stage, allowing scenes to be juxtaposed over each other, drawing the attention from one end to the other through subtle shifts in illumination by lighting designer Elliot Hubiak. Dialogue between Pho Lin and Benmin is often in Mandarin with an English translation projected in large letters on the wall behind them. The dialects all sound fantastic, thanks to dialect coach James Stone.
The play is a critique of reactionaries. Every angry action backfires. Acts of love are rewarded. Joel Tan’s script is full of jaw-dropping twists, and the superb direction by Carol Ann Tan keeps the action moving at a brisk pace. “Tango” is an apt metaphor for how justice is hampered by rage and fury and is at its best when it is love fighting against everything that goes against love.
“Tango” at Pride Arts, 4139 North Broadway, (773)857-0222, pridearts.org. Through June 11.