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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Review: Melissa Lewis Wong & Joy ChenYu Lewis, flowers and fog 花和霧 Gateway Theater, San Francisco, May 17 – 26, 2024

Updated: May 21

Melissa Lewis Wong, American born (1992), and her mother Joy ChenYu Lewis, Chinese born (1949), honor each other’s unique spirits with song, dance, storytelling, drag and many cups of tea in their performance collaboration flowers and fog 花和霧 at the Gateway Theater May 17 - 26.  Its an emotional tour de force, that had me laughing and weeping over the course of a perfect hour. 

The bond between a mother and child is often complicated, competing forces of differentiation and protection create rifts. The work of mending familial fences may be complicated across generational, cultural, and geographic divides, but Melissa and Joy show us why the effort is warranted. We see how working together on something, in this case a show, can bring understanding, balance, and satisfaction beyond one’s wildest dreams.

Melissa Lewis Wong, left, with their mother Joy ChenYu Lewis. Photo by Robbie Sweeny

flowers and fog 花和霧 is entertaining, engaging, surprising, and fresh.  Melissa is a Bay Area based Queer Chinese American artist, raised in Massachusetts, who sometimes performs in drag.  Joy is a Chinese teacher and interpreter, and a life-long singer, who escaped the Chinese Cultural Revolution by moving alone to Inner Mongolia from 1968-1974 to ride horses. Each is a strong, independent person. 

Joy sings Chinese songs both ancient and early to mid-20th Century compositions. Her voice is melodious with an impressive range. These are the songs of Melissa’s childhood, tunes and sounds she knows by heart, though the meaning of the words were, until recently a mystery to them.  Deeply emotive, rich in aural texture, the sentiments transcend text.  Sound designer Lawrence Tome, on piano, accompanies Joy’s singing which in turns either accompanies or inspires Melissa’s gestural dances.

Late for dance class once again, young Melissa hurriedly unwinds yards of silk scarf, laying it across their neck. The diaphanous material becomes graceful extensions of their arms, amplifying their movement. The sounds of rippling fabric mixes with Melissa’s vocal exhalations as her windmilling limbs cause the fuchsia streamers to carve giant circles in the air. Chinese scarf dance is glorious to behold, but strenuous and tiring for the performer.  We wonder at the years of study necessary to do this well, as Joy smiles and sings, her child’s greatest fan.

Melissa Lewis Wong in flowers and fog 花和霧 . Photo by Robbie Sweeny

Throughout the show, the performers recreate themselves with clothing and accessories from an onstage costume rack. With a gold cape, a pole, and some martial arts meet contemporary dance moves, Melissa becomes the Monkey King from the ubiquitous VHS recording that accompanied too many mini-van rides of their youth.

Joy dons a heavily embroidered traditional high-necked gown. The projected image of two long-haired cows on an open plain, with mountains in the backdrop evoke Mongolia, as Joy adds a belt and head-sash to her outfit.  She sings a Mongolian folk song accompanied by a recording of Paul Dresher on the Hurdy Grande, as Melissa mimes the lassoing of a wild horse and then helps their mother into the saddle. The two canter off with a winsome whinny from Melissa.

Joy ChenYu Lewis in flowers and fog. Photo by Robbie Sweeny

Props are also used inventively. In what feels like an organic act, Joy’s rolling of a mylar panel transforms it, from the river it was representing upon the floor, to an ad hoc mirror in which Melissa applies a layer of white pancake facial foundation and angular red streaks over their forehead and eyes.

Melissa, with new fierce face, and Joy, in large dark sunglasses, perform a spirited lip-synch to Barbra Streisand’s “Gotta Move.” Lyrics like “Gotta leave this town, gotta find some town,” and “Gotta find a man, a new man,” capture the adventurous energy of Joy’s escape from China.

Whether braiding hair, touching a face, watching with love, hugging from behind with arms crossed over the others chest and heads tilted to accommodate the other’s, this mother/adult child duo’s physicality and comfort together is enviable.

Each performance includes the participation of one of a rotating cast of drag artists. Today, Peekaboo in middle-aged seventies glam with long dark hair and metallic evening length skirt and blouse, flirts and slinks to Shirley Bassey’s recording of “What I did for love” from A Chorus Line.  Joy and Melissa side-step and rock gently behind Peekaboo for the final chorus.  It is sweet to watch Melissa, with eyes full of appreciation for her mother, repeatedly adjust their cadence to match Joy’s varied step approach.

Peekaboo in the lobby pre-show for flowers and fog. Photo by Robbie Sweeny

Seated behind an altar to Joy’s parents, Melissa interviews their mother, mining familial and cultural history, recording it for posterity, perhaps a daily ritual in recent years. Not skirting the uncomfortable, Joy recalls the middle school years when out of embarrassment Melissa tried to hide their Chinese mother from their friends. Joy shares her wish that Melissa’s grandparents could see now how Melissa celebrates Joy and wants everyone to see them together.

Joy and Melissa’s final duet finds them singing “The Water is Wide” together in English while performing a dance of support, cooperation and understanding.  Leaning trustingly into each other, holding hands, they sing the final verse, “Give me a boat that can carry two, And both shall row, My love and I.”   We pause only to wipe the tears from our eyes before standing in appreciation for the generous gift of flowers and fog 花和霧.

“If the ancestors can see, only they see, which of us are gates and which of us are partitions,” Joy quotes contemporary poet Jenny Xie.  My advice to you is be the gate, take your mom, your friend, a loved one or a neighbor and go share an afternoon of unselfish mindful presence with these two fascinating people.  And leave time at the end to visit in their home away from home. They’ve set-up three tables of Ma-Jong in tribute to their elders and they would love for you to sit and play, even if you don’t know how.

Before the 3 pm show, a lucky dozen may also purchase a ticket to a 1pm picnic hosted by Melissa and Joy. In a secret corner of a Chinatown park, we are greeted with hot tea, and stories to accompany a delicious dim sum lunch followed by red bean cakes, sesame balls and egg tarts for dessert.  It feels like one is an honored guest in their home, perhaps the friend of a friend, as Joy, at Melissa’s prompting reads a short section from her upcoming memoir, “Mongolian Days: 1969-1974.” As we eat together, Melissa recounts a Tuesday afterschool ritual she and Joy shared making egg rolls in their Massachusetts home kitchen and selling them at the local Farmer’s Market. Chatting with our picnic neighbors, we share stories of our own connections between food and family. While still sharing our sweet treats, Joy teaches us a Chinese song she learned from her parents.  The hosts say their good-byes and leave for the theater as we linger together our gifted tea cups refilled one last time.

Review by Jen Norris, published May 18, 2024, pronoun corrections May 21.


Production Credits

Created and performed by:

Melissa Lewis Wong & Joy ChenYu Lewis

Sound Design & Accompaniment: Lawrence Tome

Assistant Director: Kat Gorospe Cole

Contributing Directors: Kim Ip, Erika Chong Shuch, Lawrence Tome

Guest Drag Artists: Obsidienne Obsurd (May 17) Peekaboo (May 18), Sir Acha (May 19), Hennessy Williams (May 25), LOTUS BOY (May 26)

Projection and Visual Design: ainsley e. tharp with support from Zoe Huey

Lighting Design: GG Torres

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