April 2–21, 2024

INTERVIEW: On stage at the Wilma Theater, ‘The Good Person of Setzuan’ examines the idea of ‘goodness’

April 10, 2024


By Nydia Han and Heather Grubola WPVI logo
Wednesday, April 10, 2024 10:57AM

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) — A provocative and powerful play is running now at The Wilma Theater in Philadelphia.

It’s called ‘The Good Person of Setzuan’ and while it was written about 85 years ago, its themes are very much relevant today.

‘The Good Person of Setzuan’ examines the idea of goodness in a world fraught with inequities.

“It’s kind of like a fable for grownups. It’s this story set in a far-off land, about what does it mean to be a good person,” explained director Justin Jain.

“What it means to like, try to help your neighbor, what it means to try to love your lover, and save your child from want,” added Bi Jean Ngo, the lead actor.

Bi plays the role of Shen Te.

She is a woman living in a slum who shows incredible generosity to others and tries to better her community, but she gets taken advantage of by some of the very people she’s helped.

“To counter that she takes on the identity of a male cousin, Shui Ta. So I play both roles,” the lead explained.

Shen Te quickly learns she needs a masculine identity to assert her agency in the world.

“Our version of Shui Ta is a Vietnamese businessman. So I’m using the Vietnamese language,” she said. “His voice, the voice of Shui Ta’s, is certainly my dad’s voice.”

Bi explained how much she connected with the character and how she drew from her own experiences.

“Absolutely. I love Shen Te. She represents so much of who I would like to be.”

The play was written by German playwright Bertolt Brecht in the late 1930s but speaks to many of today’s problems.

“I’m not gonna give any spoilers but it’s, there’s a call to action for sure,” said Jain.

The play is three hours plus, but those behind it say it’s worth it.

“It’s really funny. The muscularity of it, these actors are doing physical feats of fancy,” Jain said. “The rhythm and the games throughout the whole play are constantly changing. So it keeps really buoyant and really alive. Until the very big sucker punches that come at the very end.”

The play also addresses labor and consumption, so every aspect of the production is intentional.

“This is zero cost set,” said Bi. “This set has all upcycled and recycled and found materials.”

The play is a collaboration of a diverse group of Asian Americans from Jain, who is Filipino-American, to Bi, who is Vietnamese-American, to other actors, choreographers, composers, and costume designers of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean descent.

“To have a project that truly features AAPI artists in every capacity feels empowering. And it feels like a special moment,” said Bi.

Bi, Jain, and a number of the other AAPI creatives have been friends for years, but this is their first time collaborating as a group and they said they are so proud to be putting on this epic piece in Philadelphia.

‘The Good Person of Setzuan’ is at the Wilma Theater until April 21.