‘The Good Person of Setzuan’: Local director Justin Jain talks Wilma Theater production

Justin Jain, an Asian American director, smiles with a closed mouth and soft eyes at the camera. His arms are crossed loosely on a table he leans against. He wears a colorful shirt.
Justin Jain.

Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater is putting on a production of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Good Person of Setzuan” April 2-21 with Philadelphian local director Justin Jain at the helm. 

Using an adaptation of Brecht’s play by playwright Tony Kushner, Jain is queering and reclaiming “The Good Person of Setzuan,” blending his experiences as a queer Filipino-American actor, director and educator to center AAPI voices and disrupt the historical treatment of Asian actors in theater. 

The play features an ensemble cast, many of whom are Wilma HotHouse Company members. In fact, the play was shaped in collaboration with the actors of the company, and Jain is the very first member of HotHouse to direct. 

Regarding collaboration, Jain explained, “I have a vision, but I can’t fill in everything, so I want everybody at the table to add into that and to help workshop the material and have as much ownership over it as possible.”

Jain continued, “Anybody can have an idea, anybody can propose a new idea, and we will work with that, which is very different than the hierarchical process that sometimes is predominant and in predominantly white institutions and their rehearsal spaces.”

In the play, three Gods travel to Setzuan seeking just one good person. When they encounter Shen Te (played by Bi Jean Ngo), a woman who has truly worked to lead a good life despite coming from difficult conditions, they decide to reward and test her by giving her a considerable amount of money. Although she initially tries to maintain her goodness, she ultimately takes on a male alter ego, Shui Ta, a ruthless businessman. 

The play explores questions of morality and altruism, asking the audience to look inward at their own perceptions of what it means to be good and who is determining those definitions. 

“As a queer person, I really buck against binaries, and the binary of good and bad or good and evil aren’t really things that I believe in,” Jain said. “I think people do what they need to do to survive the day, and that looks different here in Philadelphia in 2024 than it does for people in the 1940s that were watching this play. It means something different here in America versus over in the Philippines versus over in Syria versus Africa.”

Jain elaborated, “The idea that I steal because I’m starving and that’s bad messes with my brain, and the idea that I give money because I have it is good also messes with my brain.”

Jain also encourages audiences to explore their own cultural assumptions and ignorance by blending multiple Asian cultures and languages. 

“I’m also excited about [Shui Ta] entering as a foreigner to really embrace using Asian-ness and Asian language as a weapon,” Jain said.

He continued, “At the beginning of the play, we see language as a barrier and as a weakness, and then when Shui Ta enters, we see him as a businessman, and that language becomes his weapon,” Jain added. “He’s speaking in another language, and that frightens the people that he’s speaking to, so there’s a performance both of masculinity and there’s a performance of foreignness, and there’s ultimately this performance of queering a narrative, which makes my heart sing.”

Jain spent considerable time looking for a play that would “hold space for the multiplicity of voices that we have and would feel like a piece that is of the essence right now,” and he ultimately settled on “The Good Person of Setzuan,” adding that it “feels really exciting” to him “on a personal level as an Asian American theater artist.”

“I’m really fascinated by how our bodies and voices have been historically used on stage and then my grappling with my own experience 24 years into this career of how I have been used on stage,” Jain said. “A lot of my recent work has been about reclaiming that space for myself to say how can I now use my body and my voice in an aggressive, big, disruptive way after having spent years being victimized or being diminutive or being sexualized or being villainized. I’m excited about expanding the expression of what this body means on stage.”

The production is also fascinatingly a “zero waste production,” Jain explained. 

“What the audience sees on stage is all reclaimed, repurposed, rebuilt, found, and it will go back to where it came from,” Jain said. “It is borrowed. Nothing new on that stage is allowed, and what’s exciting is some audiences will recognize things from past productions, and so those are my little Easter eggs.”

Regarding Jain’s hope for the audience, he said, “[Brecht’s] destination is always to provoke change in the audience — that’s the capital C change — and that can look like many different things for any two audience members, but for this particular work it’s begging us to interrogate what does goodness mean, who dictates what that is, where did that belief come from. When I ask the audience what do you think is good, I’m also asking you where did that belief come from, and then the piece goes on to say ‘What can you change to create more goodness in the world?’”

Jain calls the show “a historical moment in Philly Asian American theater.” 

“This is a very AAPI forward production that is pulling together many Philadelphia artists and collaborators who haven’t been able to share space even in my 24 years of being a Philadelphia professional theater artist. This is a marriage of the HotHouse company and all of these guest artists, and it’s a really special moment.”

“The Good Person of Setzuan” will play April 2-21 at the Wilma Theater, 265 S Broad St. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit wilmatheater.org.

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