The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals is the title of Young Jean Lee’s off kilter adaptation of The Mask of Fu Manchu, a film directed by Charles Brabin, and it was the most popular of a series of movies about Fu Manchu. This movie concerns Fu Manchu, an evil Chinese doctor, and his daughter, Fah Lo See. He wishes to use the mask and sword of Genghis Khan to get the people of the East to rise and kill the people from the West. This basic plot is the only thing maintained in Young Jean Lee’s treatment of the show. Her mutation of the popular film subverts the original’s yellow peril narrative for a more complicated view of the character’s morals, shown through the theatric setting of the production and the characters’ questioning of their own roles within their narrative.
The original movie’s characters are sure of themselves and their realities, while Young Jean Lee’s production focuses on the very questioning of reality that the characters’ face. Each production was created through a vastly different means. The Mask of Fu Manchu was produced and created in Hollywood with a large budget and was a huge financial success for its time. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals was one of Young Jean Lee’s earlier productions and consequentially was produced by herself using just $300 and the donation of the time of the cast and crew. It is simply staged, with minimal furniture and somewhat fake looking props. Though partially due to her budget, Young Jean Lee goes out of her way to reveal the falseness of her production, a backlash against realism within the movie. The Mask of Fu Manchu, goes to great lengths to create authenticity in their black and white frames. Their aim for authenticity only goes so far, casting only white actors, even in the Asian roles. The realism of the set is vastly far from the caricature characters that inhabit it, especially given the effort to make the white actors appear Asian, including the famous “Fu Manchu” facial hair. Young Jean Lee doesn’t adhere to the ethnicity of her actors either, casting a black man in the role of Fu Manchu and maintaining only four of the many characters in the movie. However, she goes to no effort to make the black actor Asian, save dressing him in vaguely Asian clothing. Her characters are instead real in their questioning. Her production is stripped of theatricality, the set changes are done in light, the actors speak with a flat, Brechtian tone, emphasizing the words and the ways that the characters question themselves and what they are doing.
The play at every turn attempts to entirely muddle concrete narrative and morality for a greater sense of questioning. The first lines of the play, a threat from the only Asian actress on stage, “There’s something about white people’s… Sometimes I look at you—at that blankness—and think there’s no way I can hurt you enough” (Lee, 150). This beginning solid statement is what the Asians of the original movie believe. The actress plays Fah Lo See who subverts this narrative by falling in love with a white man, even when he gets drugged and cannot say anything but stereotyped racialized syllables such as bing bong. The scenes that detail Fah Lo See’s character put her in a position of subjugation that she is starkly aware of, as compared to the sexual and somewhat powerful position that the character holds in the movie.
Fu Manchu’s determination to eliminate the white people is also questioned. Fu Manchu gives a speech to the “Orientals” near the end of the show stating,
“All day long, you think about nothing but the most stupid shit! Like idiotic television shows and movies, and how much approval people show you when you talk to them. Your biggest complaint is that you don’t get to see yourselves represented in the media as being the opposite of what you in fact are. You are terrible taste in everything, and you constantly go around trying to convince people of how special you are” (Lee, 170).
The speech in which Fu Manchu incites the Asian people is instead replaced with an accusation on Asians. The black body of the actor lends itself to the stereotyped reading of the angry black man, but also that of the “more street” stereotype that surrounds some Asian Americans. It is from this position situated within a fellow subjugated race that the actor can comment on Asian American’s representation in the media.
The solidity of the white man’s hatred of the Asians, so well established in the movie is questioned in the play when Terrence delivers a speech in which he recognizes the evil that he has done to the Asians, and his own position of power in their subjugation.
Lee’s characters are real for their constant questioning of how they are being represented and their role in the narratives that they purport. Theater is not a part of popular culture and Lee uses this position to question the roles that popular culture has passed on to the far less moneyed art. By not contributing to popular culture and art at large, Lee is offering a space for Asian Americans to question the ways that they contribute to the narratives that popular culture sets forward.
The play can be watched here: http://youngjeanlee.org/work/groundwork-metaphysics-morals/
Lee, Young Jean., and Ebrary, Inc. Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven and Other Plays. 1st ed. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2009. Web.