Based on a 13th-century Chinese play, "The Orphan of Zhao" has, in an attempt at cultural shorthand, been described as the Chinese "Hamlet."
"I think that's because it is classic in feel and popular in Chinese literature," says BD Wong, who appears in American Conservatory Theater's current production of the work, a 21st-century adaptation by James Fenton.
"It's also timeless in feel, regardless of its age. It is great drama, it has a political-royal context and a lot of slaughter. People die!" he adds, laughing about the last point.
The work's translations over the centuries include a popular, though wildly divergent, one by Voltaire in 1753. In the last decade, it has been the basis for a multilingual opera by Jeffrey Ching and the film "Sacrifice" by actor-director Chen Kaige.
Wong was surprised to learn that, despite the history, the tale is not prominent in Chinese popular culture. "I was interviewed by a Chinese reporter who said, 'You know, we don't know about this play in China.' That really confused me, but then I realized it's because it's the kind of literature that appeals to a certain part of the population."
He sees this production as a way to broaden everyone's experience of Asian culture. "I do believe that this is a step toward raising the recognition of the value of literature from Asia as potential source material for American projects."
On a local level, he sees it as a way to embrace the Asian part of the San Francisco community "by giving them something that resonates with them, and that they can celebrate in some way," he says.
"I believe that my participation in this production is part of that," Wong says.
A native San Franciscan, Wong attended Lincoln High School and, briefly, San Francisco State University. He ushered for touring shows from Broadway at the Golden Gate Theatre before heading out to New York himself.
Winning a Tony Award for his Broadway debut in 1988's "M. Butterfly" helped secure a career path that includes notable feature film ("Jurassic Park," "Father of the Bride") and television ("Oz," "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit") roles. He's enjoyed success in musicals like the Broadway revivals of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" and Stephen Sondheim's "Pacific Overtures."
Being here for an extended stay has naturally brought many reunions.
"The coming home and performing in San Francisco thing is a very positive experience for me. My mom is really into coordinating lots of events," he laughs, "and that is really kind of fun for me."
IF YOU GO
The Orphan of Zhao
Where: American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes June 29
Tickets: $20 to $120
Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org