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Sunset Noir

Christopher Chen’s Play Explores the Landscape of the Mind in a San Francisco Setting

February 27, 2023
by Emily Wilson
actors in the play Phil Wong, Jomar Tagatac, and Erin Mei- Ling Stuart in The Headlands(Kevin Berne)

Playwright Christopher Chen is a homegrown talent. Hailing from the Sunset District of San Francisco, a neighborhood his family has lived in for generations, he went on to study music composition at UC Berkeley, where he got his start in writing and directing after joining the Asian American arts group Theatre Rice. In 2022, when his play The Late Wedding was performed at the Zellerbach Playhouse, it was, as he puts it, coming full circle. His scripts, which have been produced all over the United States and abroad, have been described as “puzzle boxes” and “labyrinthine.”

Christopher Chen headshot
Christopher Chen (Courtesy of A.C.T.)

His latest work, The Headlands, is now running at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco through March 5. Set in the Sunset District, the play follows Google engineer and true crime fan Henry Wong as he investigates a cold case: his father’s own unexplained death. Video projections add emotional dimension, showing glimpses of the family’s home in the Sunset, iconic local neighborhoods like North Beach and Chinatown, and the Marin Headlands of the title, where Henry’s father liked to take him when he was a child. Henry always thought his father was happy—but was he? Did his father commit suicide? Did someone kill him? As Henry talks to more and more people, including his mother, the police detective, and his father’s business partner, his perception of the events keeps changing.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you choose the title The Headlands, and why do the dad and son go there? 

The title is a pun, referring to the themes of memory and perception—the landscape of the mind, the head. And the father chooses to go there because he likes to look at his life in San Francisco from afar, through rose-colored glasses in a way, instead of seeing it for what it truly is. 

What was the germ of the idea for this? 

I wanted to try and put all my passions into one play. That meant San Francisco, noir, a big multimedia presence, and allowing the influence of one of my favorite authors, Kazuo Ishiguro, to infiltrate. Ishiguro deals with memory and unreliable narrators. Part of the fun of writing for me is to choose disparate ingredients and see how I can blend them together. 

Was the video element your idea? What did you want it to do?

Video is embedded in the script, but how it is executed is up to the director and design team. For example, nowhere in the script does it mention the set of the [family’s] house. I wanted to incorporate video to really make it feel like a noir being created live before our eyes, and I also think of memory in cinematic terms—memories seem like little flashes of movie clips sometimes. So, I wanted to capture that onstage. 

The play pokes fun at the Sunset, such as in the scene where Henry asks his father why he’s looking out the window, and tells the audience he must be looking inward because there’s nothing to see in the Sunset. Do you think the Sunset is a particularly noir-ish neighborhood? 

I do think so! It’s cozy and it feels like home to me. But it also has a forlorn and mysterious quality to it because of the constant fog and the weather-beaten quality it sometimes has because of its proximity to the ocean. 

People complain about how tech has changed San Francisco, but it seems like you still have a lot of love for the city. What do you love about it? Why did you make Henry a tech worker? 

Nothing can change the physical beauty of the place. I still feel the essential soul of the city in a physical sense. I’ve always thought of the tech boom as part of San Francisco’s frontier lineage. Dreamers coming to this outpost far out West to try and make their fortune and find themselves‚ from the Gold Rush to the Summer of Love to the tech boom. 

How does this play disrupt Asian American stereotypes? 

I wanted to make a play with Asian American characters that did not hit the audience over the head with their “Asianness.” In other words, I didn’t want race and ethnicity to be the primary themes of the play, though it does factor in, but only because it is true for the characters. I wanted to simply reflect my world and upbringing as it is and was: I grew up with Chinese Americans, so that’s what I wanted to show onstage. I wanted Asian characters to simply be themselves, within a noir mystery, without being defined by their “otherness.” 

How did your time at Berkeley influence your writing? 

I really had my theater/artistic awakening at UC Berkeley, seeing theater productions like Marat/Sade [meant to shock audiences with the violence of society] and Marisol [a play in the tradition of Theater of the Absurd]. It was directed by Peter Glazer, who went on to direct my own play on the TDPS [Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies] mainstage—my second one… so really coming full circle! And especially a Royal Court touring production of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis [with no character or stage notes, interpreted as the experience of clinical depression], which really opened my mind to what playwriting could be, and also how videography could be used in theater. I loved my playwriting and directing classes there too. I learned a lot from them.  

Emily Wilson is a writer in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in a number of outlets including, Daily Beast, and Hyperallergic. For years, she taught adults getting their high school diplomas at City College of San Francisco.

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