Playwright uses metaphors in play on civil rights

July 02, 1998

Cherylene LeeBy KATE COLEMAN / Staff Writer

Cherylene Lee, who penned "Carry the Tiger to the Mountain," premiering at the Contemporary American Theater Festival this month, says it was sort of a fluke that she became a writer.

--cont from lifestyle--

The 45-year-old Californian was a child performer in Hollywood, dancing and singing on television's Dinah Shore show, acting on "My Three Sons" and "Bachelor Father." She also was in the films "Flower Drum Song" and "Donovan's Reef."

Roles became scarce when she was about 15, but Lee fortunately developed an interest in fossils. She went on to University of California, Berkeley, to earn a bachelor's degree in paleontology. She took a year off from work toward a master's degree in geology joining the national touring company of "A Chorus Line."


Lee got a job with Disney in the creation of Epcot Center - a place where science and entertainment came together. She developed an alternative waste water system that used water hyacinths to treat sewage.

Lee married in 1979 and, in 1981, moved to Seattle where she had difficulty finding work as a scientist or a performer. She started to write, just about the time of the beating death of Vincent Chin at the hands of two Detroit auto workers in 1982.

"The crime was a big turning point in my life," Lee says.

The case also was a turning point in the Asian-American civil rights movement. The men charged were allegedly motivated by anti-Japanese sentiment at a time when gasoline-efficient imported cars were stifling their American competition.

In the criminal trial, the defendants pleaded guilty to manslaughter and received the minimum sentence of $3,000 in fines and three years probation.

The outrage of Asian-Americans across the country led to a landmark civil rights case - the first to concern alleged violations against a non-African-American, expanding the protections of civil rights law.

Lee believes Americans' perceptions of Asian-Americans is not accurate. Asian-Americans often are demonized and portrayed as other than what they really are, Lee says.

"I have a frustration about being misunderstood. Asian-American stories are American stories," she says.

Lee says most of her work deals with Chinese-American issues. She uses metaphor and movement, drama and comedy, exploring honor and shame, yin and yang and what we value as a society.

"Carry the Tiger to the Mountain" is an American story told using the elements of Chinese opera.

The title is taken from the Chinese martial art of Tai Chi. It's a movement of strength in which the energy of the aggressor is used against him, Lee explains.

The metaphor

The selling of the American car is a metaphor for the American dream, which is the immigrant's dream, Lee says.

Ed Herendeen, producing director of Contemporary American Theater Festival, had contacted Lee to adapt her screenplay about the Chin incident, "And Justice For All," for the stage.

Lee wondered why someone in West Virginia was interested in her writing about the death of Vincent Chin. She wrote the play in Shepherdstown last summer.

"Carry the Tiger to the Mountain" is the first play in CATF's commissioning project, a program Lee considers important. She says it's hard to get new plays produced. New plays are risky. They are not comforting or easy, and people are reluctant to spend money on the unknown.

Lee is sitting in on rehearsals of her play; she has strong feelings about this story, a story she believes is important for the Asian-American community, and one that has universal emotional content as well.

CATF schedule

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