Although playwright Anchuli Felicia King’s plays have been performed in London, Washington, D.C., Staunton (Virginia), Melbourne, and Sydney, her Susan Smith Blackburn Prize-nominated Golden Shield appears to be her first New York main stage production. Ostensibly about a young, idealistic lawyer’s attempt to bring her sister on board as a translator in a risky legal battle with a multinational tech corporation, the play is about half a dozen other things as well: sibling rivalry, child abuse, ethical turpitude, human rights issues, governmental suppression of the internet, legal loopholes, and corporate greed. The play actually conflates two different very real lawsuits (against internet giants Yahoo and Cisco) which may explain why it is initially so complicated.
The play expects knowledge of such legal terms as Alien Tort Statute, pro hac vice, Law of Nations, NGO, ICC, CLO and CCP, some of which are explained, while others are not. It also deals with such technology terms as ISP, IDS, DNS, parse-list filter, and network topology and speaks of “ISP Efficiency in Border and Internal AS-Topologies in Greater China.” If these acronyms sound like a foreign language, they will be to those who don’t know them though there will probably be many who do. The title comes from the Golden Shield Project, China’s name for its internet firewall.
Initially confused and confusing, the play goes back and forth in time from 2006 – 2016 and travels from Washington, D.C. to Beijing, Yingcheng, Dallas, Palo Alto and Melbourne. The intriguing premise is that Julie Chen, a managing partner of Chen & Warren PLLC in Washington, D.C. wants to bring a lawsuit against ONYS Systems, registered in Texas, for harm done to Chinese civil rights activists in its creating a more efficient way for its government to monitor internet dissent before the Beijing Olympics.
She knows of 15 people who were imprisoned or tortured as a result of this Golden Shield firewall. The problem is that it turns on a bullet point in an alleged Chinese mission point of the firewall to “combat internet crime by terrorist organizations like Zhuangzi and other hostile actors.” Can she prove that Marshall McLaren, President of China Operations for ONYS Systems, knew that it would be used to curtail civil rights in China when he signed the contract to improve the efficiency of the Golden Shield firewall and will the 15 Chinese citizens risk their lives and freedoms to testify in the United States?
Complicating the matter is the fact that Julie hires her estranged sister Eva who is fluent in Mandarin to be her translator in China and that since the death of their abusive mother two months before, they have a great deal of emotional territory to get through. Another level of obfuscation is that the play is narrated by “The Translator” who explains the considerable use of Mandarin to us throughout the play as well as the role of a translator. As directed by May Adrales, two actors each take on the roles of players on both sides of the case. While Gillian Saker uses wigs, Daniel Jenkins does not change his appearance as both Larry working for ONYS and Richard who is Julie’s partner.
Nevertheless, when all this becomes clear, Golden Shield turns into an engrossing corporate legal thriller though the ending is a bit ambiguous as to why it turns out the way it does. The cast works hard to bring this complex play to life. As the idealistic lawyer Julie, Cindy Cheung is cool and unruffled, while her opposite number, Max Gordon Moore as CEO Marshall McLaren is explosive, temperamental and volatile. Ruibo Qian as Julie’s younger sister Eva shows all the emotion that her older sister does not, while keeping secrets of her own.
Daniel Jenkins in the dual role of Richard Warren and Larry Murdoch (playing his own opposite number) is cool, calm and collected as each man. Gillian Saker goes out of her way to make Jane Bollman, Chief Legal Officer of ONYS Systems, and Amanda Carlson, Project Manager for Digital Freedom Fund, as different as possible, though she is saddled with some unconvincing wigs in the attempt to disguise her identity. Also playing two roles, Kristen Hung shows versatility as first the glacial Chinese Deputy Minster Gao Shengwei of the Ministry of Public Security, and Huang Mei, the irate wife of dissident Li Dao who agrees to testify in the case. As Li Dao, Michael C. Liu has an extremely moving scene on the witness stand when he describes his treatment in a Chinese prison. Fang Du is amusing as The Translator who not only gives away trade secrets but appears to lie with a straight face: “That’s my job, in fact, is not really to translate but to interpret not to transmit truth to truth but to give you informed approximations.”
The scenic design by dots is better at conveying some of the locations than others, while Sara Ryung Clement’s many costumes are exactly right for each character. Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew uses some strange lighting tricks that change color, embedded in the walls of the set, which take some getting used to. Tom Watson is credited with the problematic hair and wig design.
Initially difficult to follow, Anchuli Felicia King’s Golden Shield settles down by the second act to be a taut legal thriller. The fine cast deals with the legalese and technology jargon as to the manner born. Director May Adrales has done fine work with the actors but has overcomplicated things with all of the doubling nor do the settings by dots entirely help in comprehension as the play moves backwards and forwards over a decade to many locations. This is one play that could probably be improved by another draft to simplify the plot and the context.
Golden Shield (through June 12, 2022)
Manhattan Theatre Club
New York City Center – Stage I, 131 W. 55th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.manhattantheatreclub.com
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission