A staple of American storytelling is the “road picture”. Characters load up the slave ship, the stagecoach, the car or the spaceship, and head out into the distant, unspoken horizon, with unresolved and unspoken issues packed into an emotional canteen like one of those fake peanut cans, waiting for some poor sucker to peel the lid back. And when that lid blows, the devastation leaves three lifetimes of self-imposed emotional imprisonment covered in permanent debris.
The Silk Road Theater production of writer Julia Cho’s Durango is the cross-pollination of a road picture and the dysfunctional tinderbox of American “familia”, waiting for that lit match that will set its eternally captive participants hurtling towards a new “normal”. How that family exists will never be the same.
“Durango” (Colorado, that is) unknowingly awaits the arrival of Boo-Seng Lee, and his two sons; high school swimming team champ Jimmy, and prospective medical school student Isaac. Boo Seng finds himself forced out of his job of 20 years. Was it his nearing the end of his middle years; his Korean ancestry preventing his “fitting in”; his following “the company rules” to a fault? Whatever the reason, he can’t articulate his shock and frustration in real time company separation, so he chooses to add one more secret to his life portfolio and browbeats his sons into taking a family trip. Eldest-son Isaac can smell the disaster wafting from the travel pamphlet his father clutches in-hand, as youngest-son Jimmy openly relishes the first “real family outing” that he’s always wished for, believing this will be an opportunity for the three to bond before Isaac heads off to medical school in the Fall.
The closet doors blow open, but few secrets walk out, as each character works diligently to hide the secrets and lies not only from one another, but also from themselves. Eminent and distant matters of sexuality, race, and manhood are purposefully and thankfully avoided as frank discussion amongst the three, but nevertheless imposing and influential on the minutest of their individual life’s decision. Shame and the fear of being ostracized by the others are the nails that keep the lid on the family tinderbox and insure there may never be a completed circle. When a few truths slip through the cracks, we see a family work in unison to restore the uncomfortable order that they’ve been used to, handily accepting the eternal distance as the consequence of family order and obligation.
Durango is not a quintessentially “Asian” piece. It’s not a period piece set in a distant land acted out by characters that are now long dead. It’s about three men of Korean extraction mushing through their lives in the new west Carlos Murillo’s provides a stripped bare nowhere to run but inward that fully compliments Marianna Czasaszar’s minimalist set design. Durango is a story of Asian-Americans in America, and reminds us that no matter how American we may believe ourselves to be—somewhere in the back of our mind’s eye, our life’s decisions (from the small and benign to those that will determine our life’s course) are made based on who our ancestors were, where we came from, expectations and perceived obligations.
A reminder that some of us are forever tethered to “what” we are before “who” we are and what we need to become.
Durango ran May 1 – June 15, 2008. Chicago Temple, First United Methodist Church Pierce Hall, 77 W. Washington.