Santa Cruz Good Times

Oct 09th
Text size
  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size

Ties That Bind

ae ChangEngNew play re-imagines the lives of famed Siamese twins Chang and Eng

Growing up, renowned Bay Area playwright Philip Kan Gotanda remembers hearing the term “Siamese twins.” But it wasn’t until he was an adult that he came across a blurb written about the men for which the term was coined: Chang and Eng Bunker. Born in 1811 to Chinese parents living in Thailand (formerly known to Westerners as Siam), the twins came into the world conjoined by a band of cartilage at their chest.


Hailed simultaneously as monster and miracle, they were condemned to death by the King of Siam—but then spared, continuing on to live a conjoined existence as capable, strong boys who grew into men.

When Gotanda read bits and pieces about the lives of Chang and Eng, who were shipped off to join a circus freak show in the U.S., and later settled down on a farm in North Carolina, where they married two sisters and raised large families, he was intrigued. So he did what playwrights do when they want to understand something more deeply: he began to write a play.

Almost three decades later, the results can be seen in “I Dream of Chang and Eng,” opening Friday, May 25 at the UC Santa Cruz Mainstage Theater, where it will run through Sunday, June 3.

Directed by Gina Marie Hayes, the production stars Sutton Arabe, Kristofer Bumanglag and Alexandra Ho.

“I’ve been trying to write this play for 25 years,” says Gotanda, speaking over the telephone from Berkeley. “Some of my earlier drafts were much more political. But it is ultimately their personal lives that was the most interesting part.”

What intrigued him even more than the fact that they lived their lives physically connected, was the fact that they did so with colorful and distinct personalities, which he describes as “feisty, stylish, sexy, sexual, athletic, extremely savvy ... and combative.”

“The thread that really hooked me was the idea that they were not only inseparable, but they had this synchronicity in the way they talked and moved,” Gotanda explains. “But by the end of their lives, they couldn’t stand each other to the point that when they got in an argument their families would have to call the police.”

Other than a few tattered remnants of Chang and Eng’s lives—personal letters, shopping lists, and scribbled notes—most of what Gotanda gleaned of their story was from reportage.

“In terms of primary historical material for Chang and Eng, there is almost nothing,” he says. “There is not much known about their inner world. So I thought, why not make this a made-up dream about Chang and Eng and tell the story the way I want to tell it?”

Using the device of an imagined eldest daughter of the twins as storyteller, Gotanda strung together a narrative that is not so much a historical account, but rather an impressionistic telling of their lives.

“It’s outside of reality, but based on history,” says Hayes, whose lifelong fascination with the story behind freaks of nature attracted her to directing this show, as did the surreal imagery in the script. “It’s a play about misfits, circus folks ... Anyone who’s wondered where they belong will be able to relate.”

The story is told in a nonlinear way, depicting memories of a childhood in Thailand, a voyage across the ocean to America, life as freaks in a circus sideshow, and the portrayal of 19th-century family life on a southern plantation.

“There are no scene changes,” explains Arabe, who plays the part of Chang. “One scene melds to another, so Chris (Eng) and I are literally onstage the entire show while the world changes around us.”

But the prolonged stage presence is not the challenge for these performers as much as the fact that they are bound together during the performance by a chain covered with scarlet cloth.

“It’s unlike any other production I’ve been in,” says Arabe. “During rehearsal we’re connected at all times except during breaks. We try to tap into twin mentality, predicting what the other is thinking or is going to do next. First we tried walking together, then running and now we are skipping backwards.”

The only time the twins are separated during the show is when they metaphorically disconnect.

“Ultimately it’s a love story,” says Gotanda. “It tracks two brothers and their intense love and what it means. With the dreamlike aspect, there is a resonance—a coming to understanding of who they are for each other and who they are for each of their own selves.”

“I Dream of Chang and Eng” from the UCSC Theater Arts Department runs May 25-June 3 at the Mainstage Theater, UCSC Theater Arts Center, 1156 High St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $12-$15, with a buy-1-get-1-free offer for the Sunday, May 27 and Thursday, May 31 performances. For tickets, visit, or call 459-2159.

Photo:  Steve DiBartolomeo

Comments (0)Add Comment

Write comment
smaller | bigger


Share this on your social networks

Bookmark and Share

Share this

Bookmark and Share


Hot in Here

This ain’t no Burning Man—the MAH’s GLOW festival flames on


Mercury Direct in Libra, Columbus Day, Libra New Moon

Mercury completes its retrograde Friday, poised stationary direct Friday evening at zero degrees Libra. Mercury begins its journey through Libra once again, completing its retrograde shadow Oct. 12. Things should be a bit less complicated by then. Daily life works better, plans move forward, large purchases can be made, and communication eases. Everything on hold during the retrograde is slowly released. Since we eliminated all thoughts and ideas no longer needed (the purpose of Mercury’s retrograde) during the retrograde, we can now gather new information—until the next retrograde occurs on Jan. 5, 2016 (1.3 degrees Aquarius), retrograding back to 15 degrees Capricorn on Jan. 25. It’s good to know beforehand when Mercury will retrograde next—Jan. 5, the day before Epiphany. On Monday is Columbus Day, when the sailor from Genoa arrived in the new lands (Americas), Oct. 12, 1492. This discovery by Columbus was the first encounter of Europeans with Native Americans. Other names for this day are “Discovery Day, Day of the Americas, Cultural Diversity Day, Indigenous People’s Day, and Dia de la Raza.” Italian communities especially celebrate this day. Oct. 12 is also Thanksgiving Day in Canada. Monday is also the (19 degrees) Libra new moon festival. Libra’s keynote while building the personality is, “Let choice be made.” Libra is the sign of making life choices. Often under great tension of opposing forces seeking harmony and balance. There is a battle between our lower (personality) and higher selves (soul). We are tested and called to cultivate right judgment and love. When we align with the will-to-good, right choice, then right judgment and love/wisdom come forth. Our tasks in Libra. 


The New Tech Nexus

Community leaders in science and technology unite to form web-based networking program


Film, Times & Events: Week of October 9

Santa Cruz area movie theaters >
Sign up for Good Times weekly newsletter
Get the latest news, events

RSS Feed Burner

 Subscribe in a reader

Latest Comments


Seoul Food

Santa Cruz’s new Sesame Korean is a great introduction to an ancient culinary tradition


Is there evil in the world?

Yes, some people don’t think right because they have been treated badly. Milo Robbins, Scotts Valley, Second Grade


Dos Aguilas Olive Oil

Aptos company is letting locals pick their own olives in October


What’s your biggest pet peeve?

When people say they’re “going down” somewhere, and they’re actually traveling north. Julia Ragen, Santa Cruz, Psychologist