Longtime Friends Rosalind Chao and BD Wong Are Playing Siblings in What Became of Us | Playbill

Off-Broadway News Longtime Friends Rosalind Chao and BD Wong Are Playing Siblings in What Became of Us

The two star in the new two-hander, now running at Off-Broadway's Atlantic Theater Company.

BD Wong and Rosalind Chao Ahron R. Foster

Rosalind Chao may be best known to a generation of Asian Americans as Rose in the 1993 seminal film The Joy Luck Club. She’s primarily a film and TV actor, though she has dabbled in stage work over the years. Then, a few months ago, her longtime friend BD Wong asked her if she would play his older sister in the new Off-Broadway play What Became of Us. Obviously Chao said yes because, "who would say no to being on stage with BD?" But then she got the script: It was a two-hander, and it would start with her onstage giving an eight-page monologue. Talk about jumping into the deep end of theatre.

“It's been scaring the living daylights out of me,” she admits while at lunch during rehearsals of What Became of Us. That fear is actually kind of a good thing though, she notes. “My philosophy is always, when you're scared, you should probably do it.” She then adds playfully, “We'll see if I still feel that way after this is over.”

What Became of Us opens up on a character named Q, as she details her family’s journey to “this country” from “the old country.” She has a younger sibling named Z, who was born in the new country. In the play, Q and Z trade off on telling their family’s story of rebuilding their lives—and what's gained and lost in the process. If all of that sounds a bit vague at first, that’s intentional. The play, a New York debut from Shayan Lotfi, was written so it could be performed by any actor whose family has a history of immigration, and mounted anywhere that has a robust immigrant population. The casting note in the script specifies that it should be “performed by actors of the same diasporic background.”

Indeed, Chao and Wong will be starring in the show until June 15 at Off-Broadway’s Atlantic Theatre Company. Then, Shohreh Aghdashloo and Tony winner Tony Shalhoub will play Q and Z, respectively, June 10–29. And the characters are named with letters to not give them a particular race or ethnicity. But that doesn't lessen the power of the script, says Chao: "Sometimes in the first couple words, I just feel like collapsing into tears." She then adds, “I just told an Armenian friend of mine, you should do this play. It applies to him and his siblings, and what he's just gone through with them. And he's a brilliant actor as well. I just think it just works with every color of the rainbow. It really is universal.”

BD Wong and Rosalind Chao in What Became of Us Ahron Foster

Though the play is meant to be performed by anyone from a diasporic community, there are specific details in the text that resonated with Wong and Chao. Though they were both born in America, their great-grandparents and parents (respectively) were immigrants. And the play brought up familiar dynamics. Says Wong, "We recognize ourselves, and you can't help it. It has nothing to do, actually, with when and where you were born." 

For instance, the parents in What Became of Us are strict—they work in a convenience store and rarely go on vacation. They place an immense amount of pressure on their children to be successful and to take care of the family. And it’s not until Q and Z are older that they understand their parents’ behavior, and forgive their faults. Those details are, to Wong, what makes the story so universal for children of immigrants.

“The resentment you hold for your parents, the relationship that you have with your parents…[Shayan is] very insightful about it,” says Wong. “That makes acting easier in many ways. You go, ‘I get that. I recognize that I know how to do that. Because I've seen that before in life somewhere.’”

Another thing that’s made acting in the play easier is Wong and Chao’s close relationship to each other. The two met in their 20s (they're now in their 60s). They're choosier with their projects these days—the Tony Award-winning Wong has appeared in almost every Jurassic Park film and has pivoted to stage directing in recent years, while Chao was last seen in Netflix’s 3 Body Problem.

For Wong, it would “need to be so many things” to get him to act in a stage show because “you don't get paid enough really, to be quite honest.” But he said yes to What Became of Us because “it's juicy. It’s a personal opportunity. Like, ‘Wow, I want to have that experience doing that play.’ And that's how I felt about it.”

For Chao, the rigor of doing What Became of Us, where the two actors are onstage together the entire time—speaking a mix of second-person narration and dialogue scenes—takes her back to the early days of her career. She used to do experimental theatre in New York with Mabou Mines and JoAnne Akalaitis. “It's reminded me of what it was like to do avant garde theatre, and trying to hold on to the realism of it. That's the real gift of this, learning how to do both. Somebody said it’s like chewing gum and patting [your head and stomach] at the same time.”

And she also credits Wong with talking her into doing the play, and convincing her she can do it when she doubted herself in rehearsals. “BD's coaxed me through it. I said [earlier], so bravely. ‘Oh, if you're fearful, you should do it.’ But I really wasn't like that at first. BD, actually, he was behind me pushing and I was pushing back, let's put it that way,” she says chuckling.

Responds Wong, affectionately: “When she's not beating me up for it, like physically pounding her fists on me and punishing me, then she's thanking me.” Talk about a sibling dynamic.

Photos: BD Wong and Rosalind Chao in Atlantic Theater Company's What Became of Us

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