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'Whose Town is ‘Our Town’?'

October 28, 2011

Alvin Eng was researching Thornton Wilder’s classic drama Our Town a few years ago when he made an unexpected discovery.  “Long considered the quintessential 20th-century Americana play,” he says, “Our Town has Chinese roots.”

Eventually, Eng’s discovery led to a Fulbright Specialist award and an innovative teaching residency in Hong Kong.  

“Wilder’s father was the U.S. counsel general to Hong Kong and Shanghai in the 1910s,” says Eng, an adjunct lecturer in BMCC’s Department of Speech, Communications and Theater.

“Wilder spent much of his childhood there and saw a lot of Peking Opera. The influence of that experience is evident in Our Town.”  Indeed, he adds, one of the play’s most striking features is the role of the Stage Manager, “which is clearly based on the ‘Property Manager’ of Peking Opera—a kind of trickster overseer who sets everything up.”

Exploring cross-cultural linkages

This past summer, as a Fulbright Specialist in Theatre/U.S. Studies, Eng traveled to Hong Kong, where he led a six-week playwriting and performance workshop titled “Our Town: HK/USA” at City University of Hong Kong City.

“Fulbright scholarships have traditionally been awarded for hardcore academic research, but the Fulbright Specialist program is more receptive to interactive artistic workshops,” Eng says.  The program, which promotes cross-cultural linkages between U.S. academics and professionals and their counterparts overseas, awards grants for short-term collaborative projects in 100 countries worldwide.

“The residency was very intense,” Eng says. “We started by reading Our Town and using it as a structural model for acting exercises. Then I had the students write their own monologues and scenes.” While most college instruction in Hong Kong is in English, only two of Eng’s 18 students were native English speakers. “So the course also served as an ESL class,” he says.

"I had the pleasure of co-teaching this course with my wife, producer/director/actress Wendy Wasdahl," added Eng. "We both thrived." 

The students'' scripts reflected broad shifts in intergenerational relationships taking place in present-day Hong Kong, just as Our Town explored similar changes in midcentury America.
“Many of the students portrayed workaholic fathers who drove themselves mercilessly to succeed,” Eng says. 

“What the students were saying is that they didn’t want that kind of life for themselves. They seemed to be evincing a dramatically new set of values, much as we saw in New York in the 1960s.”

Unique and universal

The primary theme of Our Town: HK/USA was “the uniqueness and universality of the artist,” says Eng, a prize-winning playwright and educator.  Born and raised in New York City, he traces his roots to the Toishan region of China’s Guangdong Province, where he performed his memoir monologue, “The Last Emperor of Flushing,” in July, following his Hong Kong residency.

“As a teacher, I’ve always believed that a curriculum is only as good as your interaction with your students,” Eng says. “One of the ways I try to achieve that interaction is by bringing in my own personal experience.” It’s an approach that stood him in good stead last summer in Hong Kong, as it has at BMCC, where he has taught since 2002. 

“If the 1900s were seen as the American century, the 21st century may well be the Asian or Chinese century,” he says.  “Values are changing and we’re now looking at how the rest of the world is influencing America, rather than the other way around.”  That development could point to interesting times. 

“Today,” Eng says, “we’re all in a global dialogue.”

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  • Alvin Eng is named a Fulbright Specialist
  • Notes the influence of Peking Opera on Thornton Wilder’s classic play
  • Leads an innovative workshop at City University of Hong Kong.

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