Maya Lin was still a college student when her design was selected out of more than 1,400 entries for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., which resulted in criticism, conflict, delay and compromise, all of which she fought to overcome.
“Memorial,” a low-key, imperfect but resonant play produced by Pan Asian Repertory at A.R.T./New York Theatres through February 19, dramatizes this forty-year-old story. It is a tale told before: The architect was the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary in 1996, “Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision.” But, as “Memorial” playwright Livian Yeh makes clear, the story continues to offer an opportunity to contemplate some deep, unresolved strains in American history and culture, not least of which is anti-Asian prejudice.
In “Memorial,” Maya Lin is portrayed by Angel Lin, whose initial appearance (aided by Karen Boyer’s college-girl costume) helps drive home just how young she was. The first scene has members of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund visiting her in her dorm at Yale to inform her of her selection. When Maya, feisty and uncompromising, fights for the purity of her design, it is evident that the opposition is as much to the designer as to the design – because of her youth certainly, and her gender, but, as Yeh sees it, largely because of her ethnicity. We hear (presumably actual) racist epithets to which Maya was subjected, and a comment from a veteran: “It’s all too easy to draw comparisons between you and those we fought in Vietnam.”
There are just four other characters in the play, each of whom serves a purpose beyond just advancing the plot.
The existence in “Memorial” of Maya’s mother Julia (Rachel Lu) further emphasizes Maya’s youth. Since Maya herself was born in Ohio, it also falls on Julia, an immigrant from China, to highlight Maya’s background, and the ways in which it might have influenced her design. We hear from Julia of Aunt Hui Yin, a famous architect in China, who designed the Monument to the People’s Heroes in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Julia also presides over a tea ceremony, an almost comically slow and elaborate ritual – the first cup exists only to contemplate its smell, not to taste — which I suspect is the playwright’s way of suggesting a cultural origin in Maya’s choice of making the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial “a quiet place of contemplation.” The ceremony is one of the lovely touches in the otherwise mostly efficient direction by Jeff Liu.
Two other characters in the play are based on real-life figures who supported Maya’s design — Wolf von Eckhart (Robert Neksin), an art and architecture critic for the Washington Post, who as a Jew had fled Germany in 1936; Hideo Sasaki (Glenn Kubota), a Japanese-American landscape architect who was a juror in the Vietnam memorial design competition, and had been imprisoned in an American internment camp during World War II. Both were involved but neither were central to the development of the memorial; their prominence in the play suggests that the playwright wants us to see Maya Lin’s design the way these survivors might have seen it — as healing in the aftermath of yet another collective trauma. Is she also weighing in on the Vietnam War, seeing it as equivalent to these two dark moments in history? If so, it’s suitably subtle.
The fifth character is Colonel James Becker, a veteran who pushed for the creation and funding of the memorial, but becomes Maya’s antagonist, standing in for all those critics who recoiled at her design of two shiny black granite walls engraved with the names of U.S. service members who died or went missing during the Vietnam War. They saw it as (actual quotes cited in the play) a “black gash of shame,” and “a wailing wall for the draft dodgers and a monument to defeat.” James tries to convince Maya to change her design in basic ways.
James: This is our last chance to get people to see us the way we should be seen
Maya: As humans?
James: As heroes.
James is either a confused or confusing character; I think both. He seems to support Lin’s design in the early scenes. Even when he winds up questioning some of the choices (that the monument is black while the other ones on the National Mall are white; that it’s largely below ground), he tells Maya: “I’m just trying to help. This is my project too.”But soon he is working to undermine her; he shows Hideo a blueprint from 1946 for a memorial for Japanese-Americans that was never built, trying to entice him to work on it; this seems to be a stealthy maneuver to get him to quit working on (and supporting) the Vietnam memorial. And then James is actively lobbying against Maya’s design, testifying against it before Congress, urging a replacement, the more conventional, realistically-rendered statue known as The Three Servicemen.
The key to this contradictory characterization can be found in the program: James, we’re told, is “an amalgamation of real-life veterans.” He is created to represent a category more than to embody a credible individual character, which is problematic for more than just dramaturgical reasons. Veterans are not monolithic in their views, least of all the ones who served in Vietnam, which after the Civil War was the most divisive war in American history.
But the Colonel’s character is eventually redeemed, in part because of the performance by James Patrick Nelson, who, while carrying the weight of all veterans, is still able to offer some nuanced and moving moments that glimpse the complexity of one man’s inner life. We ultimately see James crouching in front of the memorial, looking for the name of a friend, and etching it on a napkin; we understand that he has come around – as has the public: Millions visit the memorial annually, and a 2007 survey by the American Institute of Architects listed it as the public’s tenth favorite piece of American architecture, right after the Chrysler Building and right before St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
It’s only in the final scene in “Memorial” that this modest production renders a visual sense of the monument’s power , largely through Gregory Casparian’s projections. But throughout the play Maya verbally explains the various aspects of the memorial that make it special,
Thematically, “Memorial” seems framed as the story of antipathy towards Asian people in the United States, and of that antipathy overcome – a timely interpretation given the current rise of anti-Asian violence. The play is opening today on the Chinese New Year, the day after news of ten people being killed at a ballroom dance studio in Monterey Park, California “amid Lunar New Year celebrations.”
But one can piece together other themes. This includes the continuing ambivalence of Americans towards the Vietnam War, and the place of public art in American society, which is especially relevant given the recent controversies involving monuments to the Confederacy. But it’s a much broader topic. What is the function and impact of public art? Who is it for; how much say can the public have, and what power should artists be given to effect their vision?
Mezzanine Theatre at A.R.T./New York Theatres through February 19
Runing time: 95 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $60. Senior/Miliary/Student discounts available. $30 Rush Tickets
Written by Livian Yeh
Directed by Jeff Liu
Sets by Sheryl Liu, ostumes by Karen Boyer, lighting by Victor En Yu Tan, sound by Da Xu, Projections by Gregory Casparian, and Graphics by Brit Godish.
Cast: Angel Lin as Maya Lin; Robert Neksin as Wolf von Eckhart; James Patrick Nelson as Colonel James Becker; Glenn Kubota as Hideo Sasaki; Rachel Lu as Julia Lin
Photos by Russ Rowland