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Young man returns home to reconcile his sexuality with his Chinese roots

Karsten Otto and Alton Alburo in Yilong Liu’s “June is the First Fall,” directed by Michael Leibenluft, at the New Ohio Theatre through April 20.
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Plays illuminating angst-filled coming out stories have long been a staple of theater. Yet the cryptically titled “June is the First Fall,” courtesy of the Yangtze Repertory Theatre, breathes new life into the genre by infusing a distinctly contemporary Chinese twist.

The earnest yet uneven work is part memory play, part catharsis for the out Chinese-American playwright Yilong Liu, who drew much of the material from his own past.

Like Yilong, the central character, Don (Alton Alburo), lived for a time in Hawaii. Don has returned after a 10-year absence to make peace with his father, David (Fenton Li), sister, Jane (Stefani Kuo), and yes, even his deceased mother, Yu Qin (Chun Cho), who intermittently appears as an exuberant spirit in Don’s memories. When he came out after high school, his parents were blindsided. Naturally, like most castoff gays, he fled to New York.

The action is set in a modest home in the Manoa Valley, Honolulu, in 2012.

Don’s family emigrated from China when he was a young boy, adding a complex layer of turmoil that allows Yilong to explore the collision of sexuality, family, identity, and immigration through an Asian lens. Which raises the question — can such a highly specific work translate to general audiences? For the most part the answer is yes, but under the direction of Michael Leibenluft this endeavor falls short.

That clunky title refers to a Chinese moon festival the family celebrates in spring instead of the usual time in mid-autumn. Much is made of this relocated tradition, though the significance of that is murky. The moon is a recurring motif in the piece.

The plot often veers into contrived, melodramatic territory. Inexplicably, Jane hides from her brother that Scott (Karsten Otto), the “haole” dude hanging around the house, is actually her fiancé. A subplot about an intimate encounter between Scott and Don during a long-ago hike is awkwardly jammed into the narrative.

The skill levels of the actors are all over the map. The strongest is Chun Cho, whose passionate Yu Qin is a force to be reckoned with. And it should be noted that most of her dialogue is spoken in Chinese.

That’s not to say there aren’t affecting, poetic passages. When a very tipsy Yu Qin sings “Fly Me to the Moon,” it is tender and joyous and heartbreaking all at once.

The central theme of “June is the First Fall” is that we always carry the baggage and blessings of our past with us wherever we go, for better or for worse. “I know you thought leaving would probably solve everything,” Jane says to her brother at the play’s climax. “When you leave, you leave a piece of yourself there and a piece of the place stays in you and it grows.”

Despite the ambitious drama’s shortcomings, Yangtze Rep should be commended for making a much-needed space for a uniquely queer Asian story.

JUNE IS THE FIRST FALL | Yangtze Repertory Theatre | New Ohio Theatre, 154 Christopher St., btwn. Greenwich & Washington Sts. | Through Apr. 20: Sun.-Mon.; Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m. | $25 at newohiotheatre.org | Ninety mins., no intermission

Updated 6:31 pm, April 9, 2019
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