Fresno City College’s Charles Erven has not gone through his charmed playwright’s life with a burning desire to write a play based on the ancient Chinese tale of Mulan.
“Not in a million years, man,” he says with a grin in his office.
As we spoke, his new play “Mulan and the Battle on Black Mountain” was just four days away from opening in the college’s mainstage theater.
Sometimes artistic inspiration comes from interesting places.
In this case, Erven was asked by his wife, Debra – another longtime City College theater arts instructor – to consider writing a work based on Mulan. One of her primary reasons was that she wanted to direct a show that could take advantage of the expertise of Jimmy Hao, a longtime dance teacher in the department, who grew up during the Cultural Revolution.
Hao’s father was an actor in China. Hao, who moved to the United States in 1991, is well versed in martial arts and Chinese movement, both of which have influenced his choreography. Debra Erven wanted a play that could expose her students to that style. She couldn’t find the right one.
That’s when she asked her husband to write “Mulan.”
Charles Erven, who has won national prizes for his playwriting, has written original scripts for the college before, including “Canyon Suite,” “Glynn’s Crossing” and the 2011 production of “The Ballad of Chet.”
But never a children’s tale before. And especially not one best known for being a Disney movie. He was – how to put this? – quite skeptical. It was his wife doing the asking, however, so he had a certain incentive to put in his due diligence.
And after some research, he grew intrigued. The story of Mulan – about a young woman who disguises herself as a man to fight in the army so her conscripted father doesn’t have to serve – is more than 1,000 years old and is quite common in China. First written as a poem, it has inspired folk tales, plays and books. But he couldn’t find a published version of a play available in English that did the story justice.
The Disney movie “Mulan” took as its inspiration the original poem. (Then it threw in a bunch of other elements, including a dragon and lots of magic.) Erven decided to use the poem as his source, too, and then went off in his own direction. His expanded title about “Black Mountain” comes from a line in the poem.
The result is a show suitable for ages 10 and older that also includes a number of intriguing adult themes, from the fluidity of gender to sexual politics.
Mulan (played by Thuy Duong ) is a take-charge character whose prowess on the battlefield helps her quickly climb the ranks in the army. Yet her newfound success keeps her far from her family.
“I really see it as a play about women’s empowerment, and also about the idea of a woman desperate to find her way back home,” Charles Erven says.
Disguising oneself as the other gender is a sturdy theme throughout literature. From Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” to Billy Wilder’s “Some Like It Hot,” David Henry Hwang’s “M Butterfly” and Barbra Streisand’s “Yentl,” there’s something accessible and comfortable for an audience watching such a theatrical or cinematic deception.
“It’s human nature that we have fun with it,” Debra Erven says of the gender-bender appeal.
Still, the playwright added a few twists to increase the believability factor. Mulan’s best friend, a boy from her village named Wang (Sabrina Lopez), knows her secret and provides cover. The character, however, is played by a woman, adding to the topsy-turvy feel.
Though the play isn’t a musical, it does feature original music, including use of the guzheng, a Chinese zither, along with flute and percussion. Dance and stylized movement are used throughout, and there’s even a sampling of Chinese opera. The cast of 20 are all taking a special class with Hao to perfect the style.
As you might expect, putting on an original play can be even more hectic than an already published one. With more than 60 original costumes (and no Internet sources for inspiration), creativity had to be cranked up. (Debra Erven also designed the costumes.) The same goes for scenic design, by Christopher R. Boltz. And an original play often requires some rewriting once it’s finally on the stage, and several scenes went through revisions.
Still, four days before opening, even as actors rehearse their lines on the stage and assistants scurry through the costume shop, with all the thousand details of tech week starting to close in, the Ervens seem remarkably composed (if a little tired.)
As for the husband-wife partnership, the playwright – who often directs his own scripts – has learned to give up a little control. But it also helps when he can tell the director on the ride home from rehearsal that something isn’t quite working for him. And when she can tell him that his stage directions need to be fleshed out, because no one else can see inside his head.
Not bad for a play about gender roles and sexual politics.
Sitting in her office, Debra Erven offers a big smile. “We’re still married,” she says.
Mulan and the Battle on Black Mountain
- 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 26, and Saturday, Feb. 27; 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 28; and March 3-5
- Fresno City College Theatre
- www.fresnocitycollegeedu/boxofficetickets, 559-442-8221
- $14, $12 students and seniors