The Mercury News
Christopher Chen brings new noir play home to ACT
The playwright is thrilled to have `Headlands' opening in San Francisco
Though it's named after the Marin Headlands, “The Headlands” is a San Francisco play through and through.
Written by San Francisco native Christopher Chen and now having its West Coast premiere at American Conservatory Theater, it's a film noir-inspired mystery about a Chinese American true crime enthusiast trying to unlock the mystery of his father's death many years later. The Marin Headlands play into the story as the family's favorite old hiking spot, overlooking San Francisco from across the Bay. The title also serves as a pun, as the story also explores the unsteady terrain of memory.
Directed at ACT by artistic director Pam MacKinnon and featuring a stellar cast of Bay Area actors, “The Headlands” uses video extensively in a way that's deeply embedded in the script.
In part the visual element is an homage to film noir. But also, Chen says, “It's a play about the fallibility of memory. And for me, when I think about my own shaky memories from childhood, they really do seem to play almost like little film clips. I think part of the magic of film on-stage is the fact that it can reformulate a space instantaneously, without a heavy set being lugged in and lugged out. That's the nature of memory too, and the nature of how the central character is constructing his own realities that might be dashed in an instant with a new clue.”
Chen's plays are known for upending viewers' expectations. In his Obie Award-winning “Caught,” which Shotgun Players produced locally in 2016, the audience's entire sense of reality was subverted over and over again. His multimedia-infused “The Hundred Flowers Project” with Crowded Fire Theater and Playwrights Foundation, which won a Glickman Award for best play to premiere in the Bay Area in 2012, had the play itself take on a life of its own within the story.
In a mystery, twists and turns and red herrings are simply part of the genre, so it only feels natural that Chen would try his hand at one.
Commissioned by Lincoln Center, where it debuted in 2020, “The Headlands” was Chen's first play to premiere in New York City, though a couple of others had been produced in the city before.
“I like to treat each opportunity I have like it could be my last,” Chen says. “So I was like, `All right, I may not get another opportunity for this kind of a budget again. I'm going to use this opportunity to make my dream play. The play that's all me. All the ingredients that I love put into this one play, the ultimate Chris Chen play.'”
Which means it had to be set in the Bay Area.
“One thing that's so personal to me is my home city of San Francisco, and so I wanted to make that a prominent feature,” Chen said. “And I love mysteries. I love noir. So I was like, `OK, I'm going to combine all these elements into this one play.'”
Chen also cites Kazuo Ishiguro's novels about the unreliability of memory as an influence for this particular play.
“And then as often happens, I always know that it'll eventually become personal as I start to put together the story,” Chen says. “So the father in this play actually does channel elements of my own father and his personality and his journey, in very loose form.”
Chen still lives in San Francisco, and having this play come home to the city, especially to ACT, feels like a very big deal.
“Whenever I told Bay Area people about it, they're like, `Why are you doing a San Francisco play in New York?' And my response was always, `No, please bring it here! This is where it belongs,'” Chen says. “And Pam did it. It really does feel like a watershed moment for me in a very personal way. Getting a play produced at the preeminent San Francisco stage is a really, really a meaningful thing for me. I've been here all my life, and when I was working the box office at the Magic Theatre back in the day, I never dreamed I would have a play at the Geary (now the Toni Rembe Theater) one day. This is really a culmination of my Bay Area career.”