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[Five Questions]: Susan Xu, Writer, Director, Producer of Yellow Fever

Jun 13, 2019 | 13:45 Thu
So an event listing dropped into our backend and we almost deleted it immediately because it just seemed like a bad idea. May have been a bit hasty on that one; turns out "Yellow Fever" is not, in fact, a horrible themed club night. It's a dark comedy written by Susan Xu, a Chinese-American living in Shanghai, debuting this weekend for a three-night-one-matinee run. We reached out to ask her about independent theater, interracial relationships and confronting uncomfortable themes.


SmartShanghai: Introduce yourself!

Susan Xu: My name is Susan Xu. I am a writer and director from Davis, California and I have been living in Shanghai for the last seven years. Yellow Fever is my first and last play in Shanghai (I’m moving back to the U.S. after we close the show)!

SmSh:The tagline reads "a dark comedy about navigating love, identity and power in Shanghai." So what's it about?

SX: The core of the story is about two characters—a Chinese-American woman living in Shanghai whose mental state deteriorates as she questions the motivations of her white boyfriend, and her best friend from home, a Chinese-American man who comes to Shanghai to pursue business opportunities as a pick-up artist. Their struggles with sex and romance are examined through the intersections of race with gender, class, and nationality. Tonally, the play is dark, but there are heightened and surreal moments of comedy woven throughout, which makes it easier to digest some of the heavier themes.


photo by Alejandro Scott

SmSh: Staging a play in Shanghai sounds like a lot of work. Why direct your own play?

SX: For me, theater is a safe space where you can hold a mirror up to society and pose difficult questions, and since it's such a personal piece, it felt natural to direct my own play. There isn’t much infrastructure in place for new play development here, so I am producing the whole show, too. Doing it completely independently means you can tell exactly the story you want, but it's also extremely hectic and time-consuming. I think part of the reason why I haven’t gone insane yet is because of the generous support from friends and other artists in the community, including my cast and crew.

SmSh: The show is set (mired?) in Shanghai’s expat community. Why this setting?

SX: I chose to set the play in Shanghai because while assumptions exist in the West about the pairing of an Asian woman with a foreign man, they are amplified here even more— especially because we have major foreign populations living here.


photo by Edward Dowsett

SmSh: How did the idea for this play come about? What were your inspirations?

SX: My initial impulse came after watching Young Jean Lee’s play Songs of the Dragon Flying Towards Heaven. In a way, this play is a response to that. At the time of writing, my biggest nightmare was discovering the person I’m in love with was fetishizing me for my race. So I needed to go down the rabbit hole, so to speak, to get to the root of that.


photo by Alejandro Scott

Other inspirations were David Henry Hwang’s play Yellow Face, Spike Lee’s movie Jungle Fever and the explosively powerful Sarah Kane.

SmSh: Did you have a specific target audience in mind?

SX: As a Chinese-American, I often don’t feel myself "seen" in the larger cultural narrative. I wanted to create a story centered on people who have had experiences like me and hold space for the issues that affect us. There are two vastly differing stereotypes from the West that affect men and women of East Asian descent– men are desexualized and women are oversexualized. I think it's interesting to explore the effects of these stereotypes and how they can contort people's view of themselves and their relationships.


photo by Edward Dowsett

Though I initially wrote the play for other Asian-Americans, there are characters and situations that are very recognizable to everyone, especially for those living in Shanghai. No matter where you come from, if you have felt marginalized, silenced, or fetishized, I think that this play speaks to larger issues about the racial politics of desire and the inherent power imbalances in relationships of all kinds.

SmSh: So... when you submitted the event, our first instinct was to delete it because it seems like the sort of poor-taste club nights you get here. "Yellow Fever" is an extremely loaded phrase. Why did you choose that name?

SX: Yes, it is definitely a triggering phrase, but precisely because it brings up a lot of deeply held feelings or biases, I wanted to use that title. I want my play to force people to confront uncomfortable feelings that are lurking beneath the surface in a very in-your-face way.


Yellow Fever is being performed June 14 to 16 at NextMixing. All three evening performances have already sold out, but they've added an additional matinee show on Sunday, June 16 at 2.30pm. Pre-sale is 150rmb here.


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