It is no secret that the history we hear today leaves countless stories untold. The retelling of history for immigrants who passed through Angel Island on their way to America is even more difficult due to the fact that many were fearful to open up about their journeys. Yet, “Within These Walls,” a production by UC Berkeley’s Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies, manages not just to tell these stories, but to convey them in an immersive manner to audiences.
Seamlessly weaving movement with sound, poetry and projections, the multimedia experience—a restaging of the 2017 site-specific production by the Lenora Lee Dance Company—follows nine Chinese immigrants through their time at the Angel Island Immigration Station. The show’s title refers to the carvings left on the walls of the immigration station by the more than 170,000 Chinese and other immigrants who were processed, detained and interrogated between 1910 and 1940. At the start of the performance, the carvings feature prominently on screens that frame the stage. Throughout, however, these screens disappear as the stories contained within the carvings are disseminated to the audience.
The poems are full of grief, despair and hardship, a product of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act which subjected immigrants to medical exams, grueling interrogations and weeks or months of waiting. These feelings are strongly evoked through the cast members’ lustful, sometimes forlorn, movement quality. Duets are reluctant partnerships as Dr. John Williams (Liam Quinn) pries clothing off of unwilling bodies, and Inspector Bennington (Gilberto Martinez Martinez), interrogates immigrants with questions which they struggle to understand, let alone provide answers for.
Lee’s staging emphasizes both the individuality and collectivism of the immigrants’ experience. Cast members are left entirely alone to face immigration officers, but find community at meal times, where the rhythmic banging of chopsticks and bowls creates a kaleidoscope of sound on top of the existing soundtrack—a mix of background noise, spoken word poetry and the occasional crooning saxophone. They dance boldly in unison when not being watched, but when the officials arrive on the scene, fall sheepishly into line with their shoulders hunched over.
The extreme tension present on Angel Island is depicted in the role of the interpreters, played by Verena Lee and Tatianna Steiner. With powerful, sweeping movements, the two bridge the gap between immigrants and immigration officials. They show solidarity with the immigrants by joining in breathtaking synchronicity of movement, and then slink back to the sides when the officials return onstage, conveying messages that are painful to deliver and even more painful to receive. Though interpretation is often thought of as a verbal process, Lee and Steiner’s precise and stately motions make it hard to imagine that it would not naturally be a physical process.
In dealing with such tender subject matter, it is no surprise that “Within These Walls” does not provide audience members with a pleasant viewing experience. Inspector Bennington stalks down the center aisle with a clipboard at the show’s opening, placing audience members in the shoes of an immigrant under constant surveillance. As the immigrant Ling Ha, Jingwen Han writhes in pain on a cot after being treated for the intestinal worms she is told are the reason she cannot enter the United States. The history explored here is one of exclusion, particularly a form of exclusion that is not easy to digest.
Yet Lee balances these moments with instances of beauty: bodies that seem to suspend themselves in the air as dancers propel themselves off mess hall tables and crisscross their way through a chaotic mess of ping pong balls frustratedly flung off a table. The loneliness, longing and sheer disappointment invoked in cast members’ movements is conveyed with a strength and artistry that humanizes their experiences, which have so frequently been stripped of all civility in the limited previous retellings. “Within These Walls” brings the pieces together, interpreting the past in a way that asserts its relevance in the present.