THEATER REVIEW: SAN FRANCISCO
Show #31: Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, Asian American Theater Company and Crowded Fire Theater, April 1.
By Sam Hurwitt
It opens with a slap in the face. Many, many slaps, in fact. In darkness we hear a woman being slapped over and over again. She’s being filmed—we hear the director telling her to adjust her hair and instructing the male actor not to hit her too hard. Even so, the slaps get progressively louder and accompanied by the quiet sniffling of the actress who accepts the situation with equanimity but seemingly can’t keep from crying. As a rhythmic chant rises (the compelling sound design is by Alan Chang), a video comes up that shows us the woman being slapped, sniffling, wiping her eyes, adjusting her hair, and nodding to show she’s ready to be hit again. This time we don’t hear anyone but her. We hear the slaps and see her reacting to them, but the striking hand itself is excised from the video.
The woman on the screen is Young Jean Lee, playwright of Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, a fragmented, provocative piece that’s often brutal and deeply disturbing and nearly as often terribly funny at the same time. The play’s West Coast premiere is a coproduction of Asian American Theater Company and Crowded Fire Theater Company. Artfully staged by Crowded Fire artistic director Marissa Wolf, it’s an exquisitely uncomfortable piece of theater that gets up in your face and dares you to like it. Even Emily Greene’s stage set of a plain plywood box with doors cut out on either side is so raw and unfinished that it stings the eyes.
As soon as the video ends (directed by Dean Moss for Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company), Cindy Im comes out as the Korean American (other characters are called Korean 1, White Person 2 and so on) to and says, chipperly, “Have you every noticed how most Asian-Americans are slightly brain damaged?” She continues in the same vein: “It’s like being raised by monkeys—these retarded monkeys who can barely speak English and are too evil to understand anything besides conformity and status.” She says white men like Asian women because of this “retarded quality,” and because they can attract prettier Asian women than white women because they have lower self-esteem.
The slaps in the face just keep coming, if somewhat less literally than at the beginning, in a barrage of gleefully inflammatory racial rhetoric and orientalist kitsch. Mimu Tsujimura, Lily Tung Crystal and Katie Chan play three giggling and growling Koreans who dance around in brightly colored kimonos and chatter girlishly among themselves in Korean, eventually switching to heavily accented English. Their cutesy dances involve both a great deal of screaming and beating the crap out of the Korean American like playground bullies whenever she draws near.
There’s a melodramatic vignette with Im’s blasé Korean American being convinced to turn to Jesus by her dying immigrant grandmother, which leads to an impishly confrontational street-preaching scene that goes back into the whole Asians-are-evil theme. She and the three Koreans do a sort of playground game in which they mime horribly graphic suicides while the others scream their approval. When the Korean American talks about how all minorities secretly hate white people, the three Koreans make desperate-to-please “Not me!” gestures behind her.
The White People are a young couple who do nothing but talk about their relationship. First she says she’s breaking up with him because he’s not quite smart enough for her and his nose is too big. Sometimes they’re having arguments that aren’t really arguments but rehearsals or play-acting to keep themselves amused, and other times they seem achingly sincere, and it’s often hard to tell which is which. Josh Schell has a wounded puppy-dog quality as White Person 2, and Alexis Papedo embodies fickle intensity and the confidence of someone who takes her sexual power for granted as White Person 1.
While there’s a lot of tension and hostility between the Korean American and the three Koreans, the two White People hardly interact with the others at all, which is especially interesting in a play that’s so much about race. For all the Korean American’s rants about white people—not directed at these two characters so much as at the audience—the White People don’t seem to particularly notice the Koreans one way or another. He does, however, occasionally talk about how being white is awesome, and she wants to go to Africa and live in a banana tree with the monkeys. So, you know, there’s that.
“I don’t know what the white people are going in this show,” the Koreans and Korean-American say in chorus as the voice of the author. “I don’t know what the Asian people are doing either. … All I know is if you write a lot of racist shot about your own people, white people say “Oh, you’re a cool minority!” Although this speech is that while it literally indicts the audience for liking the show at all, it’s one of the most compelling parts of the show, and the irony is that it predicts that people will think it’s much less interesting than “the parts of the show that aren’t just about race.” “But don’t worry,” the chorus says, “if enough white people hate it, I’ll cut it.”
The funny thing about that is, it’s hard to say what could or couldn’t be cut from the play because all of these bits and pieces don’t add up to anything concrete. It’s more of a cumulative effect of the onslaught of images and rhetoric. It’s a very short play, only an hour and 15 minutes, and its ending is perplexingly abrupt, mainly because it seems like just another vignette and nothing happens to tie things together at the end. But a perplexing and downright disturbing as it is, it’s a fascinating and compellingly executed piece that’s as rewarding as it is punishing.
Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven runs through April 16 at Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. http://asianamericantheater.org