Arts theater review

My mother’s daughter

A non-GMO, homegrown, all organic musical takes the stage for a limited time

The Jade Bracelet
Written and Directed by Audrey Pillsbury
Kresge Little Theater
March 15–16, 8 p.m.

For most of us in the Asian-American community, we grew up with the Justin Timberlakes. We grew up with the Jennifer Anistons. We grew up in anticipation that we could see ourselves on the television screen. The hope that someone, anyone, would look just like us. They would have black hair which grew in short strands and have skin tanned from too much time in the sun. But one quickly found out just how little representation there was overall.

“It’s unique being an Asian-American. It’s a struggle to balance your identity with the identity that your parents gave to you,” the woman across from me said as she crossed her legs. This is Audrey Pillsbury ’19, the person who wrote, produced, and directed a musical here at MIT. “It is hard! We’re not living in a society where Asians are prominent in media or big spaces, so it’s about navigating spaces.” She was methodical in how she spoke, but you could hear the passion right underneath her words. Pillsbury kept her eyes on me as she talked about Asian representation in the media.

“We all have stories that we could share.”

And this is the premise that The Jade Bracelet finds itself holding close to its heart. When all the lights died down, a single ring of jade enveloped a character onstage. She spoke of her time in China and of the new life she wanted for her daughters, one in which they could have their own jade bracelet.

Flashforward years into the future and Mei Wang (Anastasya Putri) is a single mother trying to raise her two children: Jaden (Grace Kuffner ’20) and Amy (Blythe Schulte). Jaden is the rebel of the family, resistant to her Chinese ancestry and the Home Country. Amy, on the other hand, struggles to reconcile her love for her best friend with the knowledge that she is Chinese. Even Mei is kept down by life, struggling to make ends meet with her violin classes.

One cannot talk about The Jade Bracelet without looking at how each of the heroines butt heads with each other. This is a performance of misunderstandings as well as love. If I could accurately describe what the musical felt like, I would describe it as a series of vignettes drawn from Pillsbury’s mind. The scenes float together, tangentially connected with the most unsteady of logical progression. Nevertheless, life goes on for the Wangs, and the audience follows the wildly different worlds that the Wang women inhabit.

It’s here that The Jade Bracelet really shines — not in the loud, explosive moments where characters rage against one another. No. It’s the small mannerisms that the actresses do that tell their stories. For anyone without close attention to them, they would be easily missed. It was the way that Kuffner so effortlessly breathed life into her character. The way that Putri fought back every opportunity to give her character’s daughter a wry smile. Even the disappointment that Schulte let linger in her voice that stole the show. From a musical about people, it appears that Pillsbury let her cast do exactly what she needed them to do — live.

The musical aspect of the performance was unique, though the acoustics in Kresge Little Theater seemed odd in some seats. Once again, Kuffner and Schulte lured the audience in with their performance. Kuffner enraptured her audience as her gorgeous voice rang out in the dark room while Schulte enthralled hers as a soprano. It’s here, though, that we see a lot of unused potential. The orchestration is straightforward, simple. It was nothing to write home about. For a show so focused on the Asian-American experience, it was disheartening to not have that reflected in the instrumentation as well. Knowing the musical backgrounds of both Schulte and Kuffner, it was disappointing to know that Pillsbury could have achieved so much more with their voices.

I wish I walked away from the performance satisfied. Instead, I left the theatre with the nagging sense that The Jade Bracelet could have been more. More in its music. More in its character development. And especially more in its promise to represent the Asian experience.