Flower Drum Song, A Beautiful Story Of Chinese Immigrants

Quote of the Day: The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus 

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The Poem engraved on a bronze plaque and mounted inside the pedestal of The Statue of Liberty. (I walked up her steps and looked out her crown when I was about three months pregnant with my first child back in 1993.) Most people know the second stanza. Irving Berlin set it to music. What I love, though, is that she is “a mighty woman…Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand glows world-wide welcome.” 

Flower Drum Song cast, Mu Performing Arts at Park Square Theatre, January 2017. Photo by Rich Ryan

Flower Drum Song created by the musical team of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Joseph Fields, based on the novel by C.Y. Lee, and revised book by David Henry Hwang, and directed by Randy Reyes is on stage now at Park Square Theatre in collaboration with Mu Performing Arts. Set in San Francisco, CA in the 1950’s, the story centers around a Chinese-American family that has already been in the USA for a number of years and a young woman who has recently arrived on the shores of America, fresh off the boat from China, filled with hopes and dreams, symbolized by the flower drum she carries with her from the old country. Mei-Li’s father is killed because he is seen as an enemy of the Communist party. Before he dies, he gives his daughter the drum and extends his wishes to her for a better life. 

Stephanie Bertumen as Mei-Li in Flower Drum Song. Photo by Rich Ryan

Of course, the life you dream you’ll have once you reach the “Promised Land” is never quite what you had hoped it would be. In one heart-breaking scene, several of the people who came over on the boat with Mei-Li head back to China, or Hong Kong, preferring the hardship they knew there to the unknown one in a new country, where they were not accepted. 

I brought my teenage sons to this show. When I told them it was about Chinese immigration, Charlie said, “Sounds like it will be a sad one. Those were not good times.” Indeed. Park Square has a display up in their lobby about the Chinese immigration and racism shown here in America.

While we see a little of this in the play, it is a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical after all, and we get plenty of laughs, gorgeous songs, and a sweet love story, too. The opening number “A Hundred Million Miracles” has been running in my head ever since. It is filled with hope. In fact, I got my Twitter quote in the first five minutes of the play. Mei-Li comes out on stage, her flower drum in her hands, and begins, “My father says that children keep growing, that rivers keep flowing, too…a hundred million miracles are happening every day.” The Chinese immigrants are crowded in a boat, the huddled masses, and calling out their hopes. “My baby will be born in America and not know fear because she won’t have either famine, nor war.” And, the one I tweeted, “I think I can survive anything so long as I don’t lose hope.” We all need hope to survive.

Wesley Mouri as Ta and Stephanie Bertumen as Mei-Li in Flower Drum Song. Photo by Rich Ryan

Many of us living in the United States of America today can trace our roots back to another country. My ancestors were in Norway and Sweden. They were being pushed out, crowded, and lacked opportunities and freedoms. They were promised land in America, a new life, more for everyone. They were not feared, nor hated. Some of them were probably taken advantage of, not knowing the language or culture. But, they were not turned away at the shores of freedom. And, once they found their people, they could maintain some of their old customs while learning what it means to live in America. They were able to make a living, raise their families, and watch them grow and become successful on their own.

That is the essence of Flower Drum Song and many stories like it. It’s the immigrant story. The older generation holding tight to traditions and the old ways. They younger generation embracing change and wanting to fit in. Then, somehow coming to an understanding that you can be both.

Meghan Kreidler as Linda, and the women’s chorus in Flower Drum Song, photo by Rich Ryan

Flower Drum Song is beautiful and heartbreaking, romantic and funny with characters you like, songs you remember, and scenes that make you laugh. The musicians are onstage in the background, and we had just as much fun watching them as we did the actors. We were impressed by Dylan Younger playing all the wind instruments! And, Andrew Fleser does an excellent job directing them. Bravo!

With the recent ban on immigration that is happening right now in America, my heart was heavy going into this show. Watching a production like this one puts faces and stories to those people stranded without a home, leaving what is Hell on Earth, only to be turned away from their final hope. At the curtain call, the actors come forward and state where they were born. It brought tears to my eyes. We are one world. We need to do what we can to help our neighbors and not let fear rule.

You can see Flower Drum Song at the Park Square Theatre in St. Paul, MN through February 19, 2017. They offer student matinees as well as performances for the public. Park Square is a leading theatre in its outreach to students, serving over 32,000 students each year. I would like to thank Park Square for the invitation to come view and review this play with my sons. You do important work.

Go. Create. Inspire!

Journaling Prompt: Where were you born? Where were your parents born? Your grandparents? What hardships did they/you have to overcome?

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