AATP’s ‘410[GONE]’: Authentic Asian American experience or misused mythology?

Nov. 27, 2023, 1:58 a.m.

Content warning: This article references suicide.

From Nov. 16 to 18, the Asian American Theater Project (AATP) delivered their fall main stage production “410[GONE],” written by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig and directed by Matthew Canlas ’24, in the Nitery Theater.

The play — a fantastical, semi-autobiographical retelling of a sister’s struggle to reconcile with her brother’s suicide — interweaves two narrative threads.

One narrative follows the brother, called 17 (Phong Nguyen ’25), as he is thrust into the Chinese “land of the dead.” He meets the playful, immature Monkey King (Brianna Virabouth ’25) and the pragmatic, commanding Goddess of Mercy (Aarushi Patil ’24), who both help guide recently deceased human spirits. Disoriented, he stumbles upon remnants from his past, including pickles (part of his last meal) and a fingernail clipping from his sister. He uses these clues to piece together the puzzle that was his past life. 

Meanwhile, his sister 21 (Hallie Xu ’27) is clawing at air trying to make sense of her brother’s suicide. She finds more bits of information as to what led to it as she frantically digs through his materials and methodically attempts to relieve the pain of his death. 

The two narratives converge when the siblings are reunited in the land of the dead through a mock game show. Here, they must confront uncomfortable truths in order to let each other go and be free of their respective endless, fruitless searches.

Just as the play itself is narrated from both 17 and 21’s perspective, we review the AATP production through two perspectives.

“At a complete loss for words” — Dan Kubota

I cannot recall the last time I sat in my seat at the closing of a production at a complete loss for words. AATP’s production of “410[GONE]” artfully interrogated themes of mental health, Asian culture and relationships through a story brimming with magical realism.

The play is apt at addressing suicide and grief through the Asian American lens. Rather than using the common portrayal of the grieving process as a period of intense sadness followed by a return to normal, the play framed grief as a “wake of sadness,” like the ripples left behind by a boat as it passes through the calm waters of a lake. 

The siblings are largely nameless in the program and script, their real names only being revealed for a brief period of time — Patrick and Jamie. Identified only by numbers, presumably their ages at the time of 17’s death, these two characters have the potential to be anyone and take up anyone’s name. This ambiguity is meant to encourage the audience to wrestle with the ideas these characters represent in our own life; the narrator starts off the show by requesting that audience members imagine a loved one they “will soon forget.”

Starting this pre-show monologue with the standard, concrete emergency exit protocol and ending with such an open-ended, abstract statement really laid the foundation for the thought-provoking nature of the show and created room for emotional vulnerability. 

Protagonist 21 is stuck constantly “reliving” her brother’s death; every day, she goes into the closet where he took his life, trapped in an endless cycle of pain. This cycle is finally broken when the two come together in the land of the dead. The mock game show reveals that she grieves the person her brother used to be, not who he had become before his death.

As the Goddess of Mercy and Monkey King push 21 to see this reality, they deliver dialogue in a paradoxically lighthearted manner. Their game show-like narration comes as a pointed contrast to the topic of grief, further emphasizing the gravity of the situation. She cannot seem to voice a deep truth: she is relieved to be able to stop futilely pursuing a relationship with her emotionally closed-off brother.

As an older sibling myself, this scene hit home. At times, I too feel that I am chasing after the relationship I feel we have had for fear that the gap between us is growing.

The transitions between the two storylines were shown without set changes. Instead, spotlights illuminated different parts of the stage at different times (lighting was designed by Sidra Xu ’25, Tae Kyu Kim ’25 and Xiyuan Wu ’26). The land of the living, marked by 17’s closet, only makes up a fraction of the stage in comparison to the realm the Goddess of Mercy and the Monkey King dwell in. This staging choice highlights the overwhelming presence of death in the characters’ lives. For 17, it is because he himself has died; for 21, it is because her status quo has died, as she continues to relive the circumstances of her brother’s death. 

A creative and simple set design really contributed to creating the world of the play, allowing the audience to focus on the performers themselves. The play’s innovative use of mixed media, including slides, videos and DDR (Dance Dance Revolution), engaged all of my senses and provided me with a slight sense of disorientation that felt as though it was supposed to mirror that of the characters. 

Additionally, the more serious moments toward the end of the play were broken up with comedy (from the Monkey King in particular), magnifying the seriousness of those scenes while also giving the audience an emotional break to then laugh through their tears and sniffle less. 

Overall, the play really resonated with me — watching its portrayal of mental health, sibling relationships and culture loss helped me to realize what I need to actively think about and address in my own life. For an hour and a half on a Saturday evening (Big Game evening, no less), I really felt like I was transported into another world.

a person wearing a flannel shakes hands with a person wearing a white button-up shirt
Characters 21 (left) and 17 (right) reconcile in the fever dream-esque afterworld game show. Their converging narrative arcs were emotionally compelling, writes Kubota. (Photo courtesy of Paulo Makalinao and AATP)

“Mixed feelings” — Linda Liu

I walked out of Nitery Theater on Saturday night with mixed feelings. I found AATP’s “410[GONE]” to be a confusing performance by a talented company.

Much of my criticism pertains to the script itself. Having grown up with Chinese traditions, I was troubled by the play’s misplaced use of disjointed Chinese mythological elements.

Monkey King is a fictional character in “Journey to the West,” a 16th-century Chinese novel on a Tang dynasty Buddhist monk’s pilgrimage; the Goddess of Mercy, or Guanyin, is a universal divinity in East Asian Buddhist traditions. Neither figures are associated with the underworld, and Monkey King does not play a part in the reincarnation for the dead, as takes place in “410[GONE].”

I asked myself if Cowhig tried to make some kind of a point in the out-of-place juxtaposition. Perhaps she wanted to capture how Chinese-Americans perceived Chinese culture: as a set of disjointed, inherited symbols. Even if this was what Cowhig wanted to convey, it went unaddressed in other moments of the play.

Besides, Saturday’s production presented these mythology figures in unrecognizable ways, whose artistic intentions I struggled to decipher. Monkey King and Goddess of Mercy frequently resorted to emotional outbursts and angry cries in their interactions. Their interactions constituted almost half of the play itself, and I did not find these episodes relevant to the play’s theme of grief and loss as a whole.

Costume choices for these characters also added to my confusion. Monkey King, who is supposed to be a monkey, donned strange rabbit ears. The Goddess of Mercy wore a leather jacket, which the program claimed to represent the sexualization of Asian American women, but this idea appeared an isolated thought in the context of the larger production.

Regardless, many aspects of the production were notable. Xu and Nguyen delivered touching, nuanced performances. Xu poignantly embodied 21 on her quest to find a mathematical “solution” to her brother’s suicide. Her monologues and weighty movements made the character’s trauma evident. 

Nguyen impressed me with a stellar performance in the closing scene. After drinking the soup of oblivion, which wiped out his memories before he embarked towards death, Nguyen performed a series of spectacular dance moves (choreographed by Nguyen and Eli Shi ’24) as if in a Dance Dance Revolution game.

The choreography was nothing short of genius. Nguyen appeared to be stumbling freely and lifelessly under the bright strobe lights, which illuminated his white shirt rhythmically. This dazzling visual, highlighting the strange and fantastical process of death, was surely a spectacular end to the show.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.

This article was updated to reflect that Phong Nguyen ’25 was a co-choreographer of the closing dance.

Yuanlin "Linda" Liu ‘25 is the vol. 265 Academics Desk Editor and Magazine editor. She was previously Managing Editor of the Arts & Life section during vol. 263 and 264. Contact her at lliu 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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