Vermilion Theater, Yale’s First Chinese Theater Club, Tours the US

Catch Vermilion Theater’s final performance of ‘Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land’ in Boston on August 26 and 27

1 0
6:54 PM HKT, Thu August 25, 2022 3 mins read

Unhappy with the lack of a Chinese theater group at Yale University, Ph.D. student Wisteria Deng took the initiative to found her own in 2021. Barely a year later, Vermilion Theater is presently touring the U.S., and their next and final performance will take place in Boston on August 26 and 27.

Born in China and having grown up in Singapore and the U.S., Deng is the epitome of a third-culture kid.

Ever since she was a teen, the young thespian has found a second home in theater groups around the globe — they have always provided a path for her to build connections with local communities in new cities. The Lv Yuan Theater Practice in Singapore, Thus Spoke Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan in the U.S, and Wuming at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are some theater clubs where she is enrolled as a member.

She finds it fascinating that passionate performers and plays transcend cultures and boundaries.

Wisteria Deng vermilion theater

Wisteria Deng during a theater rehearsal. Image via Tianxiang Cong

When Deng moved to New Haven to pursue a Ph.D. in clinical psychology at Yale University, she was disappointed to find that the campus lacked a Chinese theater community.

Seeing as theater groups have been a big part of her life since she first moved to Singapore at the age of 14, Deng decided to create Vermilion Theater, Yale’s first-ever Chinese-English theater club.

The club was named after the Vermilion Bird (朱雀) or Zhuque, one of the four symbols of the Chinese constellations. Representing many things, including fire, the south, rebirth, and resilience, the mythological creature appeals to Deng, who is especially fond of its rebirth symbolism:

“Theater production is a place where we are able to reinvent ourselves. There are certain things or emotions you might not be able to express in your daily life, but you can do so in the theater.”

Although Deng seeks solace in theater groups, her Chinese identity doesn’t always find a seamless fit.

“When I used to rehearse for the Chinese theater club Thus Spoke Ann Arbor, my English-speaking friends usually joked that I had disappeared from the campus,” she recalls.

Furthermore, whenever Deng watches plays in small towns, she is often one of the only Chinese spectators in the audience.

She is determined to promote diversity via Vermilion Theater, and believes that the group’s bilingual show Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land is a means to achieve that goal.

Described as “an iconic mainstay of contemporary Chinese theater,” the theater piece was written by Taiwanese playwright Stan Lai and first staged in Taiwan in 1986. In it, two completely unrelated plays — tragedy Secret Love and comedy Peach Blossom Land — unfold on the same stage.

In Deng’s version, the two plays are performed in Chinese, and banter between the two theater groups takes place in English.

“I want to make the audience feel like they are not the odd one out in the crowd when they are watching the show,” explains Deng, who wants her show to be as inclusive as possible.

vermilion theater

Members of Vermilion Theater train their vocal cords during a rehearsal at Yale University. Image via the author

Vermilion Theater first performed Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land in Yale last April. The show was so successful that the group was invited to tour New York and Boston.

“One of the reasons I love theater production so much is because of the pure love people have for theater. This goes beyond any definition, no matter race, language, or gender,” says the group’s founder.

In addition to directing the play, Deng, who identifies as queer, also plays the male lead and enjoys being gender fluid in theater productions.

vermilion theater

Wisteria Deng (right) starring as the male protagonist in a performance of Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land on June 25, 2022. Image via Tianxiang Cong

Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land isn’t her first time assuming a male role. In fact, auditioning for a male role in the past allowed her to meet her current co-director, Su Yuning. They were both members of MIT’s Wuming Theater Club at the time, and Deng made a lasting impression upon Su by unexpectedly showing up at the latter’s male-only audition.

vermillion theater

Su Yuning (far left) directs stage managers during a rehearsal at Yale University on August 20, 2022. Image via the author

“Have you seen the sign that we are only looking for male actors?” said Su on that fateful day. “She impressed (me) and convinced me to let her try out because she had seen the sign and was still eager to give it a shot,” he recalls.

After nailing the audition, Deng found it hard to pretend to be a man. It took Su’s coaching for Deng to forget about masculine stereotypes and analyze and empathize with the character — a man longing for the love of his life — instead.

By ditching certain cliches, Deng brought life to the character. The experience is just one of many that has inspired her to establish her fledging theater company.

Book your tickets to catch Vermilion Theater at Central Square Theater, Cambridge, Boston, on August 26 and 27 at 7:30 PM.

Cover image via Tianxiang Cong

Join the Conversation
Write comment

Pour yourself a stiff one, we'll be with you in a minute