In ‘Mountain,’ a girl’s quest, and an author’s
By Joel Brown Globe Correspondent April 10, 2014
As a girl in upstate New York, Grace Lin rejected her Chinese heritage.
“There were no other Asian or minority families that lived in the area,” says Lin, whose parents emigrated from Taiwan. “I kind of decided early on that I was just going to pretend that I wasn’t Chinese. I was going to pretend that I was Caucasian, like everybody was in my class. I did such a good job of that that I really did forget most of the time that I was Chinese. I used to walk down the street and see my reflection in a store window and be like, ‘Oh, there’s a Chinese girl. Wait, that’s me.’ ”
Growing up in Cambridge years later, Caroline Workman embraced her own mother’s Chinese heritage. And one of her favorite books was “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon,” a novel for young readers based on Chinese folk tales, written and illustrated . . . by Grace Lin.
It all comes full circle beginning Friday, when Workman, 14, stars in a stage adaptation of “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon” at Wheelock Family Theatre, a New England premiere that runs through May 11.
“I loved the story, and I was so excited to see what it would look like onstage, whether I was in it or not,” says Workman.
Lin will spend much of this weekend at Wheelock, where she will receive the Wheel Award for commitment to children and families and changing lives through art. “It’s a really neat thing,” says Lin, who counts 15 books in print that she both wrote and illustrated, “because you spend so much time alone in your studio or your writing room, and you kind of put your work out into the universe and you don’t really know if it goes anywhere.
“And then to know there’s a whole production being made of something that came from nothing, that just came from your imagination, is a really cool feeling,” says Lin, who moved from Somerville to Northampton last year.
The book and play tell the story of a girl named Minli (played by Workman) who, inspired by her father’s folk tales, sets off on an adventure-filled quest to find the Old Man of the Moon and ask him how she can change her family’s fortunes.
“What she learns on the journey is: The good fortune we seek to begin with isn’t the good fortune we find, but we do find what really matters,” says director Jane Staab.
“I love that Minli is so kind and so smart,” says Workman. “She puts the puzzle pieces together, and she thinks of what to do to go over an obstacle. She’s so quick-witted.”
Lin says she used to get angry when her parents tried to teach her about Chinese culture “because I felt like all they were trying to do was remind me how different I was from my classmates.” But eventually she changed her mind, and “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon” in part resulted from one of her mother’s early efforts to connect her to her roots.
“One day she went out and got about six to 12 Chinese fairy tale books that had been translated to English, and she put them on the bookshelf in the living room and just left them there. She knew if she gave them to me I’d get mad.
“She was really smart. I did end up reading every single one of them,” Lin says. “But I remember feeling like these books weren’t that great. The translation was kind of rough, there wasn’t a lot of detail, everything was kind of flat, and the illustrations were really kind of crude. I think it kind of reinforced the idea that my Asian heritage was kind of inferior to these Western things, like ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and ‘Cinderella.’ ”
Many years later, she regretted not knowing more about her heritage and spent a lot of time trying to recapture what she had missed, including travels to China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. “All of a sudden those fairy tales came back to me. I’d see them in the landscape around me.”
She started making up her own stories about them, and “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon,” published in 2009, was the end result. Workman and her mother attended Lin book signings, and a print of Lin’s art hangs in Workman’s room.
“Where the Mountain Meets the Moon” will be Staab’s last show at Wheelock, at least for a while. After 33 years at the theater, as cofounder, casting director, business manager and artistic director, she is retiring in June. Going forward, the theater will be run by producer Wendy Lement and assistant producer Shelley Bolman, who have been in their jobs since Staab’s cofounder Susan Kosoff retired in 2012.
“There’s no particular reason, it’s just I turned 70, you know?” says Staab. “But I don’t believe I’m done with the creative side of my life. I sure hope not.”
Workman is a busy young actor and dancer whose resume includes a stint in “Billy Elliot” on Broadway. She says she’s excited to work once again with Staab, who also acted in or directed the other three shows she’s been in at Wheelock.
“Caroline is a special talent. We’ve seen her grow up in this theater,” Staab says. “I think we’ve brought her and her acting to a place she can be thrilled with.”
To this day, Lin says, she doesn’t speak Chinese well and cannot write it. Workman, though, is excited for next fall when she’ll be a freshman at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, where one of her classes will be Mandarin Chinese.
Joel Brown can be reached at email@example.com.