Arts theater review

‘The Chalk Cycle’ is a 3-in-1 drama about parenthood

The Chalk Cycle balances witty quips and deep themes for a spectacular performance

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Segments of "The Chalk Cycle" involved solo violin performances, or, in this instance, a duet between Rionna Flynn '21 and Crystal Chang '20.
Nyssa Miller
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Segments of "The Chalk Cycle" involved solo violin performances, or in this instance, a duet between Rionna Flynn '21, and Crystal Chang '20.
Nyssa Miller

The Chalk Cycle
Written by Claire Conceison
Directed by Claire Conceison
MIT Music & Theater Arts

Claire Conceison built The Chalk Cycle around three stories, each separated by time but parallel in story. Act One is based on the 13th-century Chinese play, Huilan Ji (The Chalk Circle); Act Two draws from Bertolt Brecht’s play Der Kaukausische Kreidekreis (The Caucasian Chalk Circle); and Act Three is a theater interpretation of the 1999–2007 Anna Mae He custody case. The three stories share a common thread: the struggle between an adoptive mother and the biological mother, who both believe the child is rightfully theirs.

In the first act, former-prostitute Zhang Haitang (Yizhi Wang, ’22) is living with her new husband, Ma Chunxing, who is a wealthy tax collector. However, his jealous first wife, Mrs. Ma (Crystal Chang, ’20), cannot bear that Haitang has borne him a son. Mrs. Ma conspires with her lover Zhao (Rionna Flynn, ’21) to murder Chunxing, frame Haitang, and claim the child so she can inherit the fortune. But when Haitang is brought to court before Judge Bao (Grace Kuffner, ’20), her estranged brother Lin (Kate Yee, ’20) comes to her defense, saying that Haitang did not murder Chunxing.

The second act takes place in the Caucasus at the end of the second World War and in the midst of a civil war. Natella (Wang, ’22) is fleeing the region after her husband, the Governor, is executed. In her rush, she forgets her newborn son. Her servant Grusha (Chang, ’20) takes the baby. Grusha is initially conflicted because she does not really want a child, but she eventually adopts it wholeheartedly. She takes shelter with her brother, Lavrenti (Yee, ’20), and agrees to marry a dying man on paper to keep the townspeople from casting her out as an unmarried mother. After the civil war is over, Grusha’s lover Simone (Flynn, ’21) returns and discovers that she got married and has a son, which breaks his heart. And to make matters worse, Natella is back and demands her child. Judge Azdak (Kuffner, ’20), a drunken wretch of a man, must decide who gains custody of the boy.

Finally, the third act is based on the Anna Mae He custody case that lasted from 1999 to 2007. In 1998, Jack and Casey He (Wang, ’22) are expecting a child. A university student at the time, Jack had immigrated to the United States from China only three years prior. But when he is accused of sexually assaulting another student (and soon thereafter acquitted), he loses his job and insurance. The Hes cannot afford their medical bills and agree to leave Anna Mae with Jerry and Louise Baker (Chang, ’20) for three months. For the next eight years, the Bakers and the Hes battle in court for custody of Anna Mae until the case finally reaches the Supreme Court.

At the play’s conclusion, the Child (Maximilian Danton Helwig) appears as a metaphor for the three children caught between the six total mothers. The question of motherhood and the child’s lack of control is thrown into the circle, and when the house lights come on, the audience is left to think for themselves how the cases should have been settled.

The Chalk Cycle aptly premiered for Family Weekend by an amazing cast. All five actors were immensely talented — there were singing numbers, dances and violin solos throughout the performance that were absolutely flooring. They were each able to put forth the desperation of the biological and adoptive mothers and to make the audience believe that the child belonged to one mother yet both at the same time. Conceison’s directing allowed such a poignant story to really resonate; by having the actors positioned just an arm’s reach from the four-sided audience during key moments, the production was able to draw the audience in and absorb every piece of the actors’ emotions.

The Chalk Cycle will be traveling to perform in Shanghai this IAP.