Eunice Wong in Kyrgyzstan with Baysary (whose name means "Hero"), an eagle owned by Kyrgyz eagle hunter Tenti Djamanakov, who began learning the traditional art of hunting with eagles at age 9 from his father. Photo by Margaret Morton, ©2006/Courtesy Yara Arts Group
To capture the essence of a person is a difficult thing. What is arresting about Eunice Wong (Drama, Group 28) is not her beauty, intelligence, or talent—all of which she possesses—but her measured, philosophical approach to everything. And while one could attribute this to the four years she spent in Juilliard’s drama program from 1995 to 1999, it is more a consequence of who she is and her way of life.
Born and raised in Toronto, Canada, to Chinese immigrant parents, Wong, 30, was exposed to ideals of stoicism, discipline, and emotional restraint at home. But living between her family’s culture and the one she saw at school and on TV gave her an interesting perspective on the world: able to look at it in several different ways, her view is often a curious and contradictory mix of all.
While she says she always felt like an outsider at some level, never fitting in either at home or at school, she now realizes that gave her a potent ability to observe—an essential tool for artists. “I call myself a Chinese-Canadian,” Wong said in a recent interview. “I don’t consider myself an American. People often think the two countries are culturally almost identical, but there’s a very subtle, indefinable difference. I think it has to do with the fact that the United States is an imperial, militarized world power, whereas Canada is not. Being a Canadian in America gives me a very understated but distinct sense of being an outsider,” she says, adding, “It’s not a negative thing; in fact, I cherish it for the perspective it gives me.”
This perspective has allowed Wong to play roles as diverse as Anya in The Cherry Orchard; to the agoraphobic obsessive-compulsive in The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow; to a famous woman archer, Janyl, from a 17th-century Kyrgyz epic Janyl Myrza.
In preparation for the last role, Wong spent six weeks in Kyrgyzstan in the summer of 2006, through the Yara Arts Group, a New York-based company that specializes in cross-cultural projects. The group researches various traditions they’re exploring by immersing themselves fully in the particular culture, and then creates bi- or trilingual productions that combine music, movement, and theater.
Wong and the troupe spent time with Kyrgyz nomads while researching the story of Janyl, who was undefeated in battle and a great leader of her people. In addition to working with a Kyrgyz theater company, Wong also worked with an eagle hunter and herded sheep on horseback.
“All situations that take you out of your familiar surroundings change you,” she says. “This trip allowed me to live briefly in a way that I had never before imagined, in a society that isn’t driven by consumerism and depends on the land and animals for survival. It’s easy to romanticize, of course. And it is not an easy life. There’s a lot of poverty and hard work. But it’s much more integrated with the planet, with the rhythms and patterns of nature. People depend on each other more to survive, and there’s a corresponding directness and intimacy that goes along with that.”
Yet Wong seems very connected to the world—she is, after all, a woman who reads Proust for fun, listens to Puccini arias, and warms up with her Chinese broadsword before going onstage. And she is quite articulate in conversation. Asked if she speaks other languages, she replies, “I speak Cantonese—although it’s very rusty. Even so, my halting Cantonese influences my work. Like being raised in an immigrant family, knowing other languages gives one a different lens through which to see the world. There are words in Cantonese that have no English equivalent, which are the perfect word to describe a character or a feeling. The sounds themselves communicate so much … Knowing Cantonese allows me to see in a fresh way, with a new spin on the meaning and composite nature of things.”
Wong is interested in the transformational power of theater. A person who had her introduction to the world of the imagination through literature, she is drawn to the psychology of human beings. She is also to become a mother this month, and says she intends to be very involved in her child’s life. “Parenthood is probably the transformative experience in most people’s lives,” she explains. “When I go back to acting—I have no timetable sketched out—I know I will be that much richer and complex and wise for it. There’s no theater training like living life.”