BY MATTHEW OZAWA
Danny Chen was a US Army soldier who served in Afghanistan and was found dead at age 19 in a guard tower on October 3, 2011. Singled out for his Chinese-American heritage, Danny was racially harassed and physically abused by his fellow soldiers on a daily basis for over six weeks prior to his death. In 2012, several soldiers stood court-martial, faced with various charges including assault, dereliction of duty, involuntary manslaughter, and negligent homicide, among others.
Danny Chen was born to Chinese immigrant parents and raised in Chinatown, New York City. Following his time in the army, he had hoped to join the New York City Police Department. For much of Danny’s life, he felt invisible, treated as a foreigner despite having been born and raised in the US. But he always dreamed of being seen as a true American, in part by serving and protecting his nation.
In bringing Danny’s story to the stage, something I have been really drawn to is the concept of memory and what truths are revealed when we relive our past experiences. David Henry Hwang’s poignant libretto and Huang Ruo’s haunting music create a memory collage, in which Danny’s memories are ignited as he grapples with and tries to reconcile how his American dream (belonging to a community and proving his worth as an American) perhaps was in conflict with his actual reality (purposely isolated by his own countrymen and treated as an outsider). As we watch the opera’s characters explore this conflict in their search for justice, ultimately we must ask ourselves how we, too, can come to terms with our nation’s divisive views on American identity in the face of our professed ideals.
In this story, we honor Danny and all those whose citizenship and patriotism have been questioned because of their ethnicity. We stand with Suzhen Chen as she seeks justice for her son’s death. And we end with the hope that Danny’s tragic story can serve as a catalyst for greater unity within our nation.
Photo: Danny Chen with his mother prior to his deployment to Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of the Chen family.