You’ve probably heard of Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin and Marlene Dietrich - but what about Anna May Wong? Wong fought against racism, societal expectations and stereotypes to become the first ever Chinese American movie star. However, her career stalled after the 40s and her sudden death in 1961 prevented her planned on-screen comeback, leaving her legacy to fade. Red Dragonfly Productions aims to rightfully place her back on the pedestal of Hollywood stardom in The Unforgettable Anna May Wong, a monologue that tells the story of her life, alongside clips of her movie performances.
Witty, warm, and all-round good fun
From the beginning, Anna May Wong (performed by Michelle Yim) captures everyone’s attention. The stage is simply set: a table with champagne and a microphone is all this is needed for this cabaret style performance. After warming up the audience with a jokey introduction, Yim fills the stage as she bursts into song. These original songs, composed by Pearl Yim, help to segment the monologue. Although the recorded backing tracks sometimes sound a little too much like they were developed using an electronic keyboard demo in their production, the compositions are a clever way of understanding the progression through Wong’s career, as she transitions through influences from 1920s and 30s Hollywood, Berlin, London, and China. This is also emphasised by the costumes choices, from top and tails, to a glamorous fur lined cape, and incredible Chinese influenced outfits, which help to illustrate the Wong’s need to reinvent herself.
It’s fascinating to hear how Anna May’s trip to China was fully documented by film crews at the time, foreshadowing the constant sharing of our everyday lives in the 21st century. However, despite her desire to claim the media spotlight, there is much mystery around her life that is still to be unfurled. It also gives enough room for scriptwriter Ross Ericson to add his own interpretation to events. Ericson envisions Wong as witty, warm, and all-round good fun, with forever dewy-eyed reflections on her career, in spite of the difficulties she faced.
Yim’s portrayal is solid, and she also delivers strong vocals for the musical interludes, but she never feels fully inhabited by Anna May Wong’s spirit. It was a clear creative choice for Yim to focus on telling Wong’s story rather than trying to impersonate her. For example, Yim doesn’t attempt any specific kind of accent: it is explained in the show how Wong had a ‘Yankee voice’, which she then trained into a kind of British RP, which can be heard in remaining audio recordings of her. However, although this choice makes sense since it’s unlikely that the audience will be overly familiar with Wong’s voice and mannerisms to be distracted by them, it plays into a sense of distance from her. Despite Yim’s clear charisma, which keeps everyone gripped to the twists and turns of Wong’s life, her monologue still retains an air of performance throughout.
Wong’s impact resonates throughout the decades to the present day. At the same time as The Unforgettable Anna May Wong visits Brighton Fringe, you can also buy a ticket to a screening of Everything Everywhere All At Once, an international hit starring Michelle Yeoh, a Malaysian Chinese cinema superstar. Although there’s still much progress to be made, it is undeniable that Anna May Wong’s determination, grit and talent played a part in changing Hollywood for the better. Racist attitudes meant that Wong was denied the leading lady parts she so craved, but it is a real pleasure to see The Unforgettable Anna May Wong place the spotlight on her once again.