Eliot Prize for a first book. At the center of his work is the paradox of his situation: the grief and the freedom that accrue simultaneously as he writes his way toward and away from his forebears. Thus my mother exists. But as he began to write poetry, in childhood , he wrenched himself into the existence that would separate him from his family even as he honored them.
Language, for him, would be a conduit rather than an impediment. Vuong uses language to conjure wholeness from a situation that language has already broken, and will continue to break; loss and survival are always twinned. So I lost. Yeah, lye dat, baby. I telling yu. Yor daddy? Vuong is conscious that, without his work, the story of his family would seem to exist mostly in the form of uninterpreted bodies moving from one place to the next.
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Several of the poems position animals as shadow selves. A version of the first chapter was published, two years ago, as memoir, by this magazine. Little Dog grows up in Hartford with his traumatized mother and a schizophrenic grandmother. That tacit destination gives the narrative an invisible current, and embeds conflict in every word. In its first chapter, she hunches, at the age of forty-six, over Walmart coloring books, which have become her new obsession.
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Throughout the book, vignettes of his mistreatment light up and go out swiftly, like matches. As a child in Hartford, Little Dog accompanies his mother and grandmother to the grocery store, where they try to buy oxtail without knowing the word for it. The women moo and shake their butts, making a joke of themselves for the butchers; they leave with an armful of Wonder Bread and mayonnaise that Rose has mistaken for butter. He will not grow up to work in a nail salon, asthmatic from the toluene and formaldehyde fumes.
Often, the creatures are fleeing or transforming. Like your mom did last night. When Trevor notices him, at the farm, Little Dog is shocked to have been seen; Rose taught him to protect himself by staying invisible. It's Mr. Hwang's starting-off point that a cultural icon like ''Madama Butterfly'' bequeaths the sexist and racist roles that burden Western men: Gallimard believes he can become ''a real man'' only if he can exercise power over a beautiful and submissive woman, which is why he's so ripe to be duped by Song Liling's impersonation of a shrinking butterfly.
Hwang broadens his message by making Gallimard an architect of the Western foreign policy in Vietnam. The diplomat disastrously reasons that a manly display of American might can bring the Viet Cong to submission as easily as he or Puccini's Pinkerton can overpower a Madama Butterfly. Lest that ideological leap seem too didactic, the playwright shuffles the deck still more, suggesting that the roles played by Gallimard and Song Liling run so deep that they cross the boundaries of nations, cultures, revolutions and sexual orientations. That Gallimard was fated to love ''a woman created by a man'' proves to be figuratively as well as literally true: we see that the male culture that inspired his ''perfect woman'' is so entrenched that the attitudes of ''Madama Butterfly'' survive in his cherished present-day porno magazines.
Nor is the third world, in Mr. Hwang's view, immune from adopting the roles it condemns in foreign devils. We're sarcastically told that men continue to play women in Chinese opera because ''only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act. Hwang's play is not without its repetitions and its overly explicit bouts of thesis mongering.
When the playwright stops trusting his own instinct for the mysterious, the staging often helps out. Using Eiko Ishioka's towering, blood-red Oriental variant on the abstract sets Mr.
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Dexter has employed in ''Equus'' and the Metropolitan Opera ''Dialogues of the Carmelites,'' the director stirs together Mr. Hwang's dramatic modes and settings until one floats to a purely theatrical imaginative space suspended in time and place.
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That same disorienting quality can be found in Mr. Wong's Song Liling - a performance that, like John Lone's in the early Hwang plays, finds even more surprises in the straddling of cultures than in the blurring of genders. But Mr. Dexter's erratic handling of actors, also apparent in his Broadway ''Glass Menagerie'' revival, inflicts a serious toll.
John Getz and Rose Gregorio, as Gallimard's oldest pal and wife, are wildly off-key, wrecking the intended high-style comedy of the all-Western scenes. Lithgow, onstage virtually throughout, projects intelligence and wit, and his unflagging energy drives and helps unify the evening.
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Yet this engaging, ironic Gallimard never seems completely consumed by passion, whether the eroticism of imperialism or of the flesh, and the performance seems to deepen more in pitch than despair from beginning to end. Though ''M. Butterfly'' presents us with a visionary work that bridges the history and culture of two worlds, the production stops crushingly short of finding the gripping human drama that merges Mr.
Hwang's story with his brilliant play of ideas. Guan and Michele Ehlers. Presented by Stuart Ostrow and David Geffen. Alec Mapa, Chris Odo and H.
GuanRene Gallimard John Lithgow Song Liling Wong Marc, Man No. John Getz Renee, Woman at party and Girl in magazine Lori Tan Chinn Helga Rose Gregorio M. Toulon, Man No.
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