(Asian American Theater Company and Crowded Fire Theater, directed by Marissa Wolf)
Saw a production of Young Jean Lee's Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven
with Tari, S., C., via_ostiense
, and CB. I recycled the playbill, so I can't quote, but the introduction to the play said that Lee wrote it as a response to the "minority literature" pieces out there that talk about the minority experience in the US and Racism and Oppression and etc.
The play is staged in a bit of a black box theater, the entire space covered with plywood with a stylized flower in the center of the floor. It opens in the dark, with the sound of a man's voice instructing a woman who is being slapped. After a while, a video screens: a close-up of the playwright's face. She is sniffling, holding back tears, and every so often, an invisible hand loudly slaps her. We hear a pansori singer. (Later id'ed by Tari as doing a piece from Song of Chunhyang
Korean American comes out to introduce the play, followed by Koreans 1, 2, and 3, each in color-coded hanbok. Korean American speaks English with
[eta: a USian accent] and is dressed in a t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. Koreans 1, 2, and 3 spend one segment of the play speaking the respective languages of the actresses (Japanese, Mandarin, and Cantonese). The play continues with assorted vignettes, some of which are just odd, some of which are hilarious (Korean American with her grandmother omg).
The play itself was interesting, particularly how White People 1 and 2, a young cis het couple, had emo scenes arguing about their relationship, completely unconnected with the rest of the play. In the end, their narrative, boring and narcissistic as it is, takes over the entire play, which had me laughing hysterically.
The oddest bit, though, was going to the fireside chat afterward. I didn't connect to the play completely, but I didn't find it as uncomfortable as reviews said, and afterward, I felt even more alienated, like I was the intruder despite the play being produced by the Asian American Theater Company. All the things I had thought were obvious, such as how the White People scenes had nothing to do with anything and was narrowly, obsessively focused on itself and the occasional desire to improve the world and "I want to go to Africa," had not been that obvious to some of the audience.
Some audience members wanted to know what the point of the White couple was, especially since they seemed so mundane compared to the Asian people. I hadn't even realized that quite a few of the audience didn't even know that Koreans 1, 2, and 3 weren't even speaking Korean, and after me and the director pointed it out, another audience member commented on how Korean sounded like "angry Japanese."
But yes, this is why I mention having gone with so many people above; I think it would have been an entirely different experience if I'd only gone with a handful of friends or such. As it were, I am pretty sure me and CB were incredibly loud and nearly dying with laughter at several points when the people around us were not, and since all of us sat together for the fireside chat, I am fairly certain I was much louder and more obvious in my eye-rolling than I normally would have been. But honestly. Just the fact that the first few questions were all about the white people and what the play meant for them and OMG please explain what it is is saying about Asian culture to us?!
I am glad that later on, more Asian-Am people (some of the group I went with included) commented on their own experiences of the play, and I was particularly interested in the notes of how the multilingualness was done. (Lee wrote the entire play in English and wanted Koreans 1, 2, and 3 to be cast from any combination of East Asian actresses who spoke (an) East Asian language(s); part of Wolf's audition process was to see how each actress translated her own scene.) Tari also started getting into a bit of audience knowledge wrt the inclusion of the pansori snippet in the earliest sequence, which was a comedic contrast to the emotionally fraught scene, as opposed to an audience member wondering "what that music was." via_ostiense
also mentioned how the play didn't feel like it was speaking to her own experience in particular. [eta: more accurate comment
Overall, I felt that the play wasn't radical enough for me—I particularly wanted to see more being done with the multilingualness, particularly so that audience members who understood non-English languages were seeing a different play of sorts. Unfortunately, it also seemed to be too radical for many of the other people there. I realize this sounds snotty, but the points that I thought were extremely obvious to the point of being anvils had been not grasped at all by some audience members. There were some points in there about Korean-ness and general Asian stereotypes in the media, along with Korean
[eta: (Protestant?) Christian] culture that felt spot on (CB nearly fell off his chair in the scene with the grandmother talking about Jesus; I nearly fell off my chair at the miming of various ways to commit suicide), but I didn't feel like I (non-white Asian-American me) was the play's core audience, which made me a bit sad.
I also looked up some reviews for this play later, and I feel that what I saw was not necessarily what the reviewers saw. Links:
- Official page
including a YouTube snippet of one of the first portions of the performance.
- SFGate review
: "Besides Lee's forays into Korean American identity, she raises the daring notion that white people may be as human as anybody else."
- SF Examiner review
: "One scene within the 70-minute piece, about a daughter in conflict with her tyrannical parents, is performed entirely in an Asian language (maybe more than one, as the actresses themselves come from various Asian backgrounds). Decipher it if you can.
"In another, more accessible scene, the Korean-American is persuaded by her overbearing, dying old-world grandmother to 'be humble' and pray to Jesus."
To all these reviews, I want to say: accessible to whom? Why? Deciphered by WHOM? Who are you presuming is the audience, and why in the world are you presuming that?
I do think Lee's play is directed more toward white people than I would have liked, or held back somewhat because she wanted it to be more "universal," but I also think she is reacting to the Amy Tan version of explaining it all to the white people by not explaining, or by using in jokes and making some people uncomfortable with the realization that they are in jokes. And some of them are jokes I am not in on, but you know what, that's okay. Because it's not about me (Chinese-American me who partially grew up in Taiwan), which some of the reviews and some of the audience members really did not seem to understand.
(People who went, please feel free to chime in more/correct me/whatnot in comments! I waited too long to write this up, and as usual, I have forgotten more than I wrote down.)