Photo: Kevin Berne.

Interview w/Tommy Bo

Actor, "The Far Country," Berkeley Rep

Written by:
Toba Singer
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“The Far Country” opens a window on the widespread but under-the-radar practice of Chinese immigrants buying and selling their identities to gain legal entry into the United States during the 68-year period during which the Chinese Exclusion Act, and auxiliary legislation designed to discourage Chinese immigration, was in force. Tommy Bo plays one such immigrant, Moon Gyet in The Far Country production currently playing at Berkeley Rep. Bo’s theatrical career marries an embarrassment of riches to a bundle of contradictions. Though he yearns to put to use his training at a Physical Comedy and Clowning College in Italy, his career began with a serious role in “The Great Leap” by Lauren Yee, at Portland Center Stage, in which he played a scrappy basketball player competing in Beijing during the height of the Tienmien Square rebellion. Next came the Chinese opera “Still Midsummer,” his Off-Broadway debut in the story of a prophetic widow who has been convicted of a murder she did not commit, built around a “The Lottery”-type vengeance theme, in which his character gets his heart ripped out. In “The Brothers Paranormal,” he investigates to determine whether a Thai ghost is inhabiting the home of an African-American couple. In The Far Country, Bo’s Moon Gyet, is a young Chinese boy whose path to manhood is charted by the liminal time he serves as a factotum laborer during the “Paper Family” era. I was able to interview Bo by telephone on March 16 and 28, 2024.
Toba Singer: What was the lead-up to your relationship with Berkeley Rep?

Tommy Bo: I was doing “The Brothers Paranormal in Olney Maryland when Berkeley Rep sent me the sides for “The Far Country,” and then within a few weeks there was a callback with the play’s director Jennifer Chang, and playwright, Lloyd Suh. Jennifer Chang has been on my radar for a few years. From the beginning of my career, her energy drew me to her work. Lloyd is a brilliant playwright.
TS: Once you stepped into the role, what did you learn that you hadn’t known before about the Chinese Exclusion Act?

TB: I didn’t know much about it, mostly because I was taught very minimally about that period. My primary school textbooks had a paragraph on it and that’s being generous. What took me aback and by surprise was the extensiveness of the acts that were put into place to exclude not only any immigrants coming in from China but also those that were already in the States: the Page Act of 1875, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and the Geary Act of 1892. None of these were repealed until 1943. And so that’s 68 years of restrictive laws and renewals of laws that were meant to say, “Hey, we don’t want you coming here, and we’re making it as hard as possible for you to become one of us, become a US citizen.” The processing center at Angel Island opened in 1910 because during the earthquake of 1906, all birth records and immigration applications were lost, and so opportunities post-earthquake opened up for Chinese who were already here to claim citizenship and for new arrivals to apply. Out of that arose the “paper family,” beginning with the paper son, and so in the play, you see the basis for Gee (Feodor Chin) and Moon’s relationship.

I believe one of the strongest moments and most complicated, baffling, outrageous, and heartbreaking scenes in the play is Moon’s interrogation. During that time, there were children traveling with mothers and if they looked to be a certain age or were a certain height, they’d be separated from their mothers, even as young as eight years old, maybe even younger. They were sent to the men’s barracks, set up to carry out interrogations of children. So thinking about Moon’s journey and his interrogation when he was 15 or 16, at the time of his crossing, is heartbreaking. For a kid to go through the psychological torture of the initial questions, then awaiting the follow-up questions, with interrogators who make sure that the questions are probing, looking for inconsistencies, trying to eliminate you, to set you up, or find damning discrepancies. Being able to dig a little bit and examine transcripts of actual interrogations turns up some very brave individuals. The interrogator would ask a question and then follow up with, “Do you want to elaborate on that?” And the person would straight up answer, “No. Next question.” Very bold, because they also knew that they had to stay consistent with their answers. My character is Moon the child who sees all that.

TS: Your mother, Low (Tess Lina), has an odd relationship with a certain stranger who happens by your home. His name is Gee and Moon is eavesdropping on their conversation. 

Later in his life in America, it’s time for Moon to return home. What did you want to be different about your reunion with your mother and specifically the discussion to differentiate yourself from who Gee was compared to who you’d become?

TB: I think with such a passage of time, there is a very, very minuscule detail that becomes larger in the scheme of things as my mother and I engage in a discussion in the scene at the top of Act II. She mentions the letters, and we have a little back and forth of “Did you understand or exaggerate?” I think coming back and seeing my mother nine years later and prompted by that question, she begins to comprehend that Moon wants to make her understand his time away, but also take that moment to confess to what has happened to him in America. After 17 months of interrogations on Angel Island, he was put straight to work. And he does have his little moment of confession where he admits that he’s accrued a tremendous debt just to have a “better life” In America. He wants his mother to understand what he has been through and that he’s back home to ask for her help. Though he has made mistakes, they are not ones we can accept as such just on the face of what they seem to be. They occur in the context of paths different from Gee’s that Moon had to follow to establish his place and how he and Low can move forward from there.

I’m not speaking here for the actor playing Gee. I’m speaking from my point of view as Moon, from which there are not many options. Moon was stuck on Angel Island. Either he would have to up and go back to China or make it out and survive, and so in his speech to his mother, he tells her, “I didn’t have a choice. I had to figure out how to survive so that I could make it in this place so that we could start building a legacy, a future for us.”

TS: It’s not the path you wanted to follow, but it’s the one that was left open to Moon, and along the way he made certain decisions that he hopes she’ll respect. Is that how it’s meant to read?

TB: I agree. Yes.

TS: That’s something that emerges that the audience, no matter what their background, will take away. Out of the perfidious history of this period come some universal lessons.

Your character is very excited by Ah Yuen’s (Sharon Shao ) boldness, yet reluctant about her sexuality. What explains the sharp dichotomy between what you immediately appreciate about her and what you’re just beginning to see that’s a little shocking?

TB: This scene is so special to me. We have two young people who share the same Idea for a future of wanting more for themselves, but—you put it perfectly—have such a sharp dichotomy of how to get there. I think the reason Moon is so thrown off by Ah Yuen’s boldness is that after his time on Angel Island, he was sent to perform manual labor, 16 hours a day. You eat, sleep, work, on repeat, and he did that for such a long time just so that he could make sure that he sent enough money back to his mother so she would be out of debt. He still had to keep paying off his debt, and so his exposure to women was probably very limited. And so this idea of coming back to China and asking Mom for help came down to “Hey, Mom, I need a girlfriend,” someone who I can bring back to the States so that I can start carving out this legacy but also get out of this enormous debt. When Ah Yuen arrives, it’s a pivotal turn for Moon because he discovers that the legacy isn’t about how many people he can bring in as a paper son, a paper daughter, or a paper family. It’s about the family that he’s going to create in America, fulfilling the dream of the next generation. He’s found the answer in this person who also wants so much more because she was inspired by her grandfather who also wanted more for himself and the next generation.

TS: You mentioned moments that were challenging in the interrogation scene. Were there others that contributed to your growth as an actor?

TB: The interrogation scene took a toll on me to the point that any questioning makes me a little nervous now, even if someone asks me how my day is going.

One of the biggest challenges during this process was the passage of time. We have huge time jumps, especially from the interrogation scene into what we call the liminal space. So much is passive but expository in this passage of time and that pushes Moon, like an internal clock.

TS: What defines liminal space?

TB: It’s actually what Lloyd wrote as the explosive scene at the end of Act I representing those 17 months on Angel Island. It’s a lot like how we were during the Pandemic, in lockdown, isolating, where when we woke up, did the same thing every day. We checked the news, made something to eat, and then it was a constant repetition of that. In that physical and mental headspace, there’s the question of “How long am I going to be like this? How long am I going to be here?” In a very few seconds, we’re navigating the passage of time to the top of Act II. Before anyone even speaks one line, you know that it’s when Moon comes back to see his mother. He is a fully grown man now, coming back to a home that is no longer his home. He’s a stranger in this land, so it’s being able to navigate that in a body that almost feels like it has a different character inhabiting it, even as we do catch a glimpse of the child, alongside the young man who that child has become, and he cracks and breaks a little bit but you know for the most part who he is. He’s been redrawn as a character, an American. You can tell that America has changed him. The passage of time was one of the trickier things to navigate during this process, as we tried to figure out where’s the balance of this character who’s the person trapped in this liminal space but then breaks free and goes to America, is changed by it, and comes back to China in search of help. It’s like a taffy pull which then comes back together. You’re figuring out where the play is in that process, and where the groundedness can stand and hold itself. There are also moments of levity when Moon meets Ah Yuen, a different level of playfulness which you know is hopeful because, at the end of the day, we want to feel hopeful that this character is not only a survivor, but a hopeful human being living in America.

TS: How does real-world awareness of the extent to which Chinese workers were super-exploited upon arrival in the United States, and long after, affect how Moon makes sense of his world?

TB: There’s the speech that he gives to Ah Yuen about his time in America, and it’s its own piece comprising all the oppositions: it’s this but it feels like that; it’s that but it was like this; and he talks about how lonely America has been, how empty it can feel working there and that during his time in the States, he’s almost lost his sense of purpose to where he doesn’t know what he’s looking forward to anymore. That feeling of loss scares him into thinking that he might not be able to get it back or recover from it. That’s why Ah Yuen is such an important character. She instills the hope that there’s got to be more. Is it possible to think about what could change from what you’re feeling right now and what America could be for us and those who come after us. It’s then that he makes the decision, in just a few beats in which he is breathing the same air in the same space as she is, that becomes a “Yes.” I do believe that we can change the future for us and those coming after us.

TS: She is, after all, a peasant girl, whose daily life involves seeing seeds grow from nothing into splendiferous, rooted, useful things.

TB: She looks so incredibly strong. I’m not too familiar with her familial history, but I know that she knows she had a brother who tried to cross but ultimately failed and was sent back home. She has a dad who’s a drunkard. I don’t know whether there’s a matriarch, but it seems like she has stepped into that role and been taking care of her family, and so I think that’s where her fullness comes from. She sees someone who has been on the other side, supposedly living a better life, but there’s an incompleteness to him. She sees and honors it enough to say, “I want to come along for the journey with you.”

TS: What feedback are you receiving?

The Peet’s Theater is an intimate space. So the feedback underlines how vocal and present the audience is with us during the ending speech when Ah Yuen says “I want a future for the children, but you know I have to let them create that on their own.” The first step is being here in the States and the rest will follow. And you have this gorgeous sequence of seeing three generations of Chinese Americans come on stage and it ends with a beautiful, picturesque collage of families that have come before us. There are a lot of emotions and tears in the audience, with audience members coming up and saying, “My grandfather or great-grandfather was a paper son and he was he was detained for X amount of time.” One gentleman had an ancestor who was a paper son who wanted to marry a US citizen, but they couldn’t marry in the States due to the Expatriation Act of 1907, so they had to marry in Canada. “The Far Country” makes an impact on them and they feel seen through something that seems so forgotten. Even though Angel Island is right here, so close by, it seems like no one wants to talk about it. It could be a multitude of things. Maybe it touches too close to the heart that people want to forget. There is something really beautiful about bringing this story to the Bay Area.

Early on, Lloyd mentioned that you come to know this story, not only for the audience, not only for us as actors but also to conjure up spirits, the ghosts that have passed through Angel Island and have made their way and made their mark for generations to come, that have sacrificed so much to be here.

TS: What would you like to do next?

TB: I would like to finally explore opportunities to do physical comedy, even a Shakespeare work that I could dig into; for example, to play Edgar in “King Lear.” I’d love to play a clown, a trickster, running around and causing chaos. I’d love to do “Sanctuary City” by Martina Mayak.

TS: Whom do you admire among physical comedy actors?

TS: I love Rob Mcclure in the Mrs. Doubtfire tour he’s doing now that I recently saw, where is is going 110%. I’m a big fan of Bill Hader, not only on Saturday Night Live but in the title role of his HBO show, “Barry,” in how he so skillfully balances comedy and tragedy. I admire the acting chops of how Sandra Oh handles comedy on “Killing Eve.”

TS: Have you given any thought to having your own physical comedy repertory company?

TB: No, but there’s a company out of the UK that I love, Mischief Theater Company. They have a show called “Peter Pan Goes Wrong,” that’s my personal favorite.

Toba Singer

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