A sea of Asian faces dominated the audience at the New York premiere of June is the First Fall. Much of the play uncannily hit emotional beats with me: someone who was raised Vietnamese American, where family loyalty is everything even when traditions impose on your well-being.
Playwright Yilong Liu covers the familial experience of being Chinese and queer through the journey of twenty-something Don (Alton Alburo), who is figuring how his sexuality and his insecurities can coexist with his more traditional family. As Don flies from New York City back home to Honolulu, Hawai’i, he is ambushed by flashbacks of his late mother. The young man is coming home to the open arms of his father, his sister, and her white fiancé. In spite of his affections, tension remains in the air about Don’s untimely departure, and emotional wounds begin to bleed. Although he doesn’t regret taking flight from his family, he also has to pay the price of leaving.
Written with sensitivity toward all its players, the piece offers a compassionate window into the intersection of Chinese culture, queerness, and gender roles. Don fled his family because his open queerness felt constrained by his family’s heteronormative Chinese ideals. Take, for example, Don recounting his father handing him a Playboy while Don’s sister insists that their father was trying to be helpful. While the play empathizes with the father’s anxieties for his son, we also understand how his words of concern can be insufferable to Don.
Throughout the straightforward drama, director Michael Leibenluft also pushes you into ethereal sequences where Don finds himself face-to-face with the ghost of his mother. The directorial touches whisk you into the flashbacks in a snap as props and scenes collapse into view. The flashbacks never lose their spell.
The island geography prevails in the atmosphere. The minimalism accommodates dreamlike moments, when the backdrop flashes into blue. Jean Kim’s scenic work is a star in itself, showing the age and the snugness of the homely space. The home has a touch of shack-like appearance, true to the Hawai’i setting.
There is a sense of sacred space as we’re inducted into the family traditions. In one of the most effective flashbacks, Don’s mother pantomimes the waves of a Chinese character as she instructs him in Chinese. For non-Chinese-speaking audience members like me, the motions and mannerisms whenever Chinese is spoken need no translation or decoding.
The leading Alburo is youthful and reserved, overwhelmed by his family but also enjoying their company even if he doesn’t like to admit it. He has convincing chemistry with the jovial patriarch played by Fenton Li, who has boisterous papa humor and an open heart, despite occasionally having insensitive, patronizing moments. Chun Cho wanders into the flashbacks as a strict Chinese mother, overbearing but radiating tough love. While Stefani Kuo as the sister is committed to her more heated scenes, her inflections make her feel like the least invested voice in the play. As a local haole, Karsten Otto plays a non-Asian man integrating into a Chinese family, while understanding that he can fall short of comprehending their traditions.
90 minutes with no intermission, June is the First Fall is a tight, compact evening of drama. Gut-wrenching moments spill out at the end when a past trauma bleeds into a present quarrel as Don affirms his own manhood, not his family’s idea of it, to his loved ones, both living and dead. Though the exploding catharsis feels somewhat disconnected from its rather clean resolution, it also does achieve satisfaction through its crumbles of drama. The play ends with a true adage, “Sometimes leaving may feel like flying, sometimes flying may seem like falling.”