“The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” published in 2011, sparked debate about Western (more-indulgent) versus Eastern (strict) parenting styles, and what the book was really about. Many readers took it seriously, while the author claimed it was satire.
The book also inspired a play by Chinese-American writer Mike Lew, who said he experienced the high expectations of tiger parents but is also close to his family. His play, “Tiger Style!” examines stereotypes of Asian Americans, and, in a broader sense, American race relations.
“Tiger Style!” is making its regional premiere at Olney Theatre Center, directed by Helen Hayes award winner Natsu Onoda Power.
The protagonists of “Tiger Style!” are academically and professionally successful third generation Chinese American siblings who blame their parents’ strictness for their imperfect lives. Albert Chen has been passed over for a promotion, and Jennifer has been broken up with.
Sean Sekino, who plays Albert, said he experienced the kind of stereotypes that plague the siblings.
“As an Asian-American male, I get cast as a computer nerd or a sidekick,” he said.
He praised the job Lew has done in capturing the self-love, self-loathing, pride and introspection of the characters.
“The play’s main focus is incidental bureaucratic systemic racism,” Sekino said. Even so, “It’s not a story of oppression. It’s still a comedy.”
Albert and Jennifer confront their parents, but Mom and Dad basically tell them to grow up. As written, the parents are sane, if strict, yet helpful as good parents should be, Sekino said. “It’s the assumptions of the kids, their own anxieties that led them down a certain path. Their characters are written with angst, frustration and anger, combative in every scene except one,” he said.
While wonderful stories have been written about Asian Americans, they usually concern immigration. This story is “approachable as comedy,” he said.
In fact, the siblings make the trip in reverse, moving to China. But things do not go as smoothly as expected.
Eileen Rivera plays the Mom, as well as three other characters: a cousin, an American therapist and a Chinese matchmaker.
Rivera had never read or seen “Tiger Style!” but was positively inclined; she knows Lew personally and believed his work would be “irreverent and funny.”
Playing four characters is something she is used to, but also is a trend, Rivera said. It is cheaper to double or more cast, she laughed, so she tends to audition for plays that call for that.
It can be a little confusing as to which role she is playing, but as time goes on, she will “come up with some way to exaggerate each character’s distinctiveness.”
As a second-generation Filipina, Rivera said she has seen the stereotypes from both directions – expectations by non-Asians of how Asian Americans should act and older Asian Americans asking them if they go back to their country, if they have ties – which can be very annoying to young people, she said.
Microaggressions are not uncommon, Rivera added. Three times in the play someone says, “Go back where you came from,” and “Tiger Style!” was written before current events.
Albert and Jennifer call their parents dictators, and the parents admit to being strict. “But Mom is also a lot of fun to play,” Rivera said. “She is very loving, and she and the father have a very strong marriage. They’re also very successful professionally. Even watching her angry kids, this mother thinks to herself, ‘They’re so cute.’”
Regina Aquino is Jennifer. Kurt Kwan is Dad, while Michael Glenn plays various roles.
“Tiger Style!” runs till August 18 at Olney Theatre’s Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab, 2001 Olney Sandy Spring Road, Olney.