Theatre Review: ‘Porcelain’ at Out Front Theatre

Tom Fish and Kevin Qian in Porcelain.

Out Front Theatre, Atlanta’s only LGBTQ theatre, is presenting the Southeastern premiere of Chay Yew’s play “Porcelain,” directed by Matt Huff and running through Feb. 23.

In its short life Out Front has produced mainly lighter fare such as “Buyer and Cellar,” “The Rocky Horror Show,” and “The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told.” In these days of ever-present political tension, these plays have been most welcome and wittily told to appreciative audiences.

“Porcelain” is a serious drama with adult themes and situations, told in 95 minutes. First performed in 1992 in London, it’s a provocative work that deals with issues such as race, sexuality, and self-hatred.

John Lee (Kevin Qian) is a 19-year-old Chinese-British gay man living in London; he works at his immigrant father’s restaurant. He has performed so well on college entrance exams that he has been granted admission to study at Cambridge. However, as theatre PR puts it, he is restless, lonely, and unsure of his identity; he is achingly unhappy. He begins to seek contact with men in public restrooms. The 90’s were before cellphone hookup apps existed.

the cast of Porcelain.

At the beginning of the play, all we know is that he has been arrested for the fatal shooting of a Caucasian man in a restroom. John is in jail, sitting on the floor, surrounded by red origami cranes he has made. A quartet of actors play the Voices: the police, television reporters, and a court-appointed psychiatrist. These actors are quite excellent: They are Michael Short, Joseph Johnson, Gil Eplan-Frankel, and Tom Fish.

The script contains dialogue between John and the four Voices—Greek chorus style—and it adds a powerful collective voice to the proceedings. John begins, sullen and unwilling at first, to unburden himself to the psychiatrist about his acute sense of isolation and loneliness; not only about being gay but also Chinese. Racial bias even affects him: He says he makes fun of Chinese men at gay nightclubs, with their “singsong nasal duck sounds.” And his father (whom we don’t see) is no help at all; his attitude exacerbates John’s self-hatred and inability to assimilate.

There is a ray of hope when a banker he meets in a restroom takes him home and seems sympathetic. At one point John says something like, “I just want to be held.” And here Mr. Qian’s John breaks your heart; he is so vulnerable and gentle, and only 19, as you recall. But this liaison does not last, and that is all I can tell you about the plot. Things fall apart, as the poet says.

Kevin Qian

I would like to commend the theatre and director Huff for having the audience sit in the round onstage. This is a breath of fresh air for this theatre. The very large, wide stage of the theatre has been problematic for a long time, even when the now defunct Fabrefaction Theatre held court here. But for “Porcelain” we are brought in close to the actors, and I breathed in the immediacy and intimacy like a whiff of pure oxygen. It’s about time.

Even as I praise the director and the actors, we know that we start with the play. And this work, to this viewer, is not only sad and depressing but downright nihilistic. I will say “Procelain” evokes a sense of unease from the very first; this is okay, even interesting. But I think some tweaking, even after 28 years, is in order. The staging and the actors are compelling; just be aware the play contains implied violence and rape. Leave the kids at home.

For tickets and information, visit outfronttheatre.com.

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