Ties that Bind
Growing up, renowned Bay Area playwright Philip Kan Gotanda remembers hearing the term “Siamese twins.” But it wasn’t until he was an adult that he came across a blurb written about the men for which the term was coined: Chang and Eng Bunker. Born in 1811 to Chinese parents living in Thailand (formerly known to Westerners as Siam), the twins came into the world conjoined by a band of cartilage at their chest.
Hailed simultaneously as monster and miracle, they were condemned to death by the King of Siam—but then spared, continuing on to live a conjoined existence as capable, strong boys who grew into men.
When Gotanda read bits and pieces about the lives of Chang and Eng, who were shipped off to join a circus freak show in the U.S., and later settled down on a farm in North Carolina, where they married two sisters and raised large families, he was intrigued. So he did what playwrights do when they want to understand something more deeply: he began to write a play.
Almost three decades later, the results can be seen in “I Dream of Chang and Eng,” opening Friday, May 25 at the UC Santa Cruz Mainstage Theater, where it will run through Sunday, June 3.
Directed by Gina Marie Hayes, the production stars Sutton Arabe, Kristofer Bumanglag and Alexandra Ho.
“I’ve been trying to write this play for 25 years,” says Gotanda, speaking over the telephone from Berkeley. “Some of my earlier drafts were much more political. But it is ultimately their personal lives that was the most interesting part.”
What intrigued him even more than the fact that they lived their lives physically connected, was the fact that they did so with colorful and distinct personalities, which he describes as “feisty, stylish, sexy, sexual, athletic, extremely savvy ... and combative.”
“The thread that really hooked me was the idea that they were not only inseparable, but they had this synchronicity in the way they talked and moved,” Gotanda explains. “But by the end of their lives, they couldn’t stand each other to the point that when they got in an argument their families would have to call the police.”
Other than a few tattered remnants of Chang and Eng’s lives—personal letters, shopping lists, and scribbled notes—most of what Gotanda gleaned of their story was from reportage.
“In terms of primary historical material for Chang and Eng, there is almost nothing,” he says. “There is not much known about their inner world. So I thought, why not make this a made-up dream about Chang and Eng and tell the story the way I want to tell it?”
Using the device of an imagined eldest daughter of the twins as storyteller, Gotanda strung together a narrative that is not so much a historical account, but rather an impressionistic telling of their lives.
“It’s outside of reality, but based on history,” says Hayes, whose lifelong fascination with the story behind freaks of nature attracted her to directing this show, as did the surreal imagery in the script. “It’s a play about misfits, circus folks ... Anyone who’s wondered where they belong will be able to relate.”
The story is told in a nonlinear way, depicting memories of a childhood in Thailand, a voyage across the ocean to America, life as freaks in a circus sideshow, and the portrayal of 19th-century family life on a southern plantation.
“There are no scene changes,” explains Arabe, who plays the part of Chang. “One scene melds to another, so Chris (Eng) and I are literally onstage the entire show while the world changes around us.”
But the prolonged stage presence is not the challenge for these performers as much as the fact that they are bound together during the performance by a chain covered with scarlet cloth.
“It’s unlike any other production I’ve been in,” says Arabe. “During rehearsal we’re connected at all times except during breaks. We try to tap into twin mentality, predicting what the other is thinking or is going to do next. First we tried walking together, then running and now we are skipping backwards.”
The only time the twins are separated during the show is when they metaphorically disconnect.
“Ultimately it’s a love story,” says Gotanda. “It tracks two brothers and their intense love and what it means. With the dreamlike aspect, there is a resonance—a coming to understanding of who they are for each other and who they are for each of their own selves.”
“I Dream of Chang and Eng” runs May 25-June 3 at the Mainstage Theater, UCSC Theater Arts Center, 1156 High St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $12-$15, with a buy-1-get-1-free offer for the Sunday, May 27 and Thursday, May 31 performances. For tickets, visit santacruztickets.com, or call 459-2159.
Photo: Steve DiBartolomeo