When the musical Chess opens at the David Henry Hwang Theater tomorrow night, it will look a lot different from the original production, which premiered in London’s West End in 1986 and ran for three years. It also will stray from the ill-fated Broadway version, which opened in 1988 and lasted only two months — and from a third version that served as the Los Angeles County premiere, produced by Long Beach Civic Light Opera in 1990.
Director Tim Dang, who is also East West Players’ (EWP) producing artistic director, decided to re-imagine Chess for the 21st century with a multicultural cast. Elijah Rock, who is African American, stars as Russian chess player Anatoly. Joan Almedilla, who is a Filipina immigrant, plays his American love interest. Victor E. Chan, who is of Chinese and Filipino descent, portrays his American competitor Freddy. Four of the 15 Chess cast members are of mixed race.
“As artistic directors, we have a responsibility for what happens on our own stages,” says Dang, who hopes to lead in the campaign for more multicultural casting by example with Chess.
Dang’s philosophy stems from his three decades-plus years of experience working in Los Angeles theater. He has been artistic director of EWP for 20 years and a part of it for 33 years. He usually directs one show a year, minus a few years when he spent more time fundraising. He estimates he has directed a total of 16 plays.
He’s attempting to push American theater, and more specifically Los Angeles theater to reflect 21st century society in casting choices. EWP has presented multicultural casts in the past when the script demanded it, as in its revival of M. Butterfly in 2004. But for Chess, the casting was completely colorblind. The usual number of submissions received when East West is casting all-Asian performances is 300, but with Chess it doubled to 600.
“I wanted to present a multicultural cast and show there’s no lack of talent in any community,” says Dang. “[I have spoken to] other people of color who wish they had a theater like East West in their community.” Not only Asian Americans but also African Americans “never get an opportunity to do Chess. They feel like they can’t audition for Chess because historically it’s perceived as an all-white cast.”
Dang saw the musical Chess as a perfect opportunity to feature a multicultural cast because of its international backdrop. “You have the U.S. versus U.S.S.R. Act one [in this version] takes place in Merano, Italy, and act two in Bangkok, Thailand.”
Last year, the lack of Asian-descent actors in casts led to two controversies cited by Dang. In La Jolla Playhouse’s workshop of The Nightingale, which was set in ancient China, the cast of 12 had only two actors of Asian descent. Also last year, the Royal Shakespeare Company staged the 13th century Chinese revenge drama The Orphan of Zhao with a mostly white cast.
“There is a lack of opportunity for Asian Americans on all fronts: acting, writing, directing,” says Dang. “We [also] find that other people of color are looking for the same amount of opportunities, too.”
Chess is not only EWP’s first production utilizing colorblind casting, it’s also the company’s first rock opera. The score by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, formerly of ABBA, with lyrics by Tim Rice, is sometimes performed solely as a concert.
“I have never seen a production of Chess,” admits Dang. “I have seen a concert version. I told the creative team and cast, there has to be a reason why we’re doing a production of Chess and not a concert. Chess is a metaphor for life. Our lives have specific strategic moves, and each move that we make in life influences what happens with our next move, and that’s exactly how Chess is. I don’t think you get that from a concert.”
During the rehearsal process, Dang and his creative team discovered that their production of Chess explores ideas of spirituality or religion.
“One act takes place in Merano, Italy, a Catholic culture. People are judged by a Supreme Being. How much of the things that happen to you do you say is God’s will? It can’t be helped because a higher power has destined that this happen to you. Act two takes place in Bangkok, Thailand, which is basically Buddhist. There’s no judgment in terms of what you do. Everything is much more karmic-influenced. The amount of good you give out is the amount of good that will come back to you. Those philosophies make you think that the decisions you make in life, whether in Buddhist philosophy or Catholicism, how much of it is actually your doing instead of depending on a Supreme Being that’s causing you to do something? It’s an interesting way of thinking in terms of philosophy, and I hope that we’re able to touch upon that. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that in any of the productions, or read stories about [other productions of] Chess” that touch on these differing senses of spirituality.
The storyline of Chess follows an American and Russian player competing in a world tournament during the Cold War. Dang says he looked at the conflict between America and North Korea as a modern-day parallel.
“There’s lots of posturing,” he says. “[In Chess], the Russians are seen as darker, heavier, the bad guys, as opposed to the Americans. We’re doing it opposite. Americans can be seen by the rest of the world as bad guys. We tried to temper scenes so the Americans also look like they’re the bad guys. Both of them [Russians and Americans] have valid points in terms of what it is they’re fighting for.”
EWP’s Chess also adds more humor to the production than previous incarnations, Dang hopes. “Our first number ‘Merano’ takes place on the border of Italy and Germany. It has a Sound of Music kind of feel. Everyone has infectious smiles. It almost looks like The Stepford Wives. I hope people will get that.”
Ultimately, Dang tried to stick to the original script. “One of the things Tim Rice has in the book of Chess is, ‘whenever in doubt, go back to the beginning.’ We licensed the UK version of Chess. We have permission for slight variations, but it’s basically the original version we’re doing.”
The original version — but with a 21st century cast, that is. Dang hopes EWP’s audience is ready for it. “At our first dress rehearsal on Sunday, there is a love triangle of an American woman who falls in love with a Russian. Our Anatoly is African American, and Florence is Filipina. For the first time, they actually kissed on stage. It’s such a riveting moment — an interracial kiss. You don’t see that a lot. It makes a statement outside of the story of Chess.”
Dang would like to see EWP continue in its leadership in breaking new ground for colorblind casting without sacrificing its mission of presenting Asian-American work. He’d like for the 50-year-old organization to be able to do both.
“Sometimes I facetiously think that the mission of East West Players is to eventually not exist because everyone’s doing Asian-American work, so there’s no need for us to be here,” says Dang. “But that’s not going to happen in my lifetime.”
Chess, David Henry Hwang Theater at Union Center for the Arts, 120 Judge John Aiso St., LA 90012. Opens Wednesday. Wed-Sat 8 pm; Sun 2 pm. Through June 9. Tickets: $51-$56. www.eastwestplayers.org. 213-625-7000.
**All Chess production photos by Michael Lamont.