Christopher Chen is trying to do nothing less in his work as a playwright than create a new form.
“I think one of my goals as a playwright is to really find ways to activate the audience, and myself as a writer in the process, by specifically trying to turn over subject matter in new ways to unlock different parts of people’s brains and visceral experiences,” he explained. “I am workshopping the term fable realism (to describe his work.)”
One of Chen’s newest pieces, called Passage, will be performed during Long Wharf Theatre’s Third Annual Contemporary American Voices Festival. He describes the play as a fantasia inspired by A Passage to India, by E.M. Forster. Forster’s novel, published in 1924, is a story about the racial tensions and prejudices present in colonial India during British rule. “It was a foundational text in my literary career,” he said. “It helped shape my voice as a literary artist.”
From a purely artistic standpoint, Forster’s work showed the young Chen that a novel or a piece of art can contain multitudes. “A singular piece of art can have a macro wide angle lens, from the epic to the intimate … The way Forster handles these patterns and metaphors in a very organic way,” he said. “And the way he is able to weave in the spiritual and the political. It was really eye opening for me.”
Passage recasts the novel as a minimalist contemporary fable on the clash of two imagined cultures, creating an ominous meditation on perception, prejudice, and power. “I really had to engage with the text. It just couldn’t be more timely right now,” Chen said. “I made a conscious effort to make the play my own.”
Passage has all of the hallmarks of Chen’s developing style. He began work on the play in 2015, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. “It’s definitely shot through with that kind of zeitgeist,” he said. Chen maintained Forster’s balance of the spiritual and the political and the sincere inquiry at the heart of the novel, but remove any particular time and place, and used contemporary language. He introduced element of the fable into his play and stripped away the common symbols we might use as shorthand to understand a situation.
“The idea behind this style is that I am almost like a scientist. I am removing most of the variables of the play and keeping certain things uncontrolled, like the humanity of the characters themselves. So the audiences might be flipping back and forth between characters without the normal signifiers as to where their sympathies might lie,” he said.
He is always looking for ways to activate the audience, to make them more engaged with the art form happening before their eyes. “Audiences have to bring 50 percent of themselves to make it the whole and complete experience. That might be a higher ratio than normal,” he said.