I'm really not supposed to like this stuff. I'm a jaded white girl who grew up in a school where being white made you a minority, where when you walked down the hall it was perfectly acceptable to be addressed, "Hey, white girl," and where Multicultural Day was the day for the white kids to stay home because apparently everyone has a culture to celebrate except us. This does not make for a girl who likes to discuss race. This girl knows that race is an issue, of course, and strives to live well and be good to all people regardless of color, but race is just not an issue she likes to engage.
James and I often talk about what we call post-offensive. It's often in terms of comedy - people like Sacha Baron Cohen, Carlos Mencia, Margaret Cho, shows like "Family Guy" and "South Park," Avenue Q, where objectively offensive statements are being made, but there's an awareness of the offensiveness, and it's often a comment on itself. They're aware they're being offensive, but using it - for comedy, for comment, to make fun of the people afraid to say those dangerous things. It also often feels liberating - you're not allowed to make fun of race, you're not allowed to make fun of race, but then you do, and you laugh, and it's a relief. In my senior year [gay alert] musical theatre class we got into a discussion about whether or not The Producers is anti-semitic. It's not, and I think we all agreed on that. But why not? Well, tone, which is almost impossible to pin down. Although I'm not a fan of that show, Gary Beach's tongue-lolling dancing Hitler continues to warm my heart. And that show's a pioneer of post-offensivism.
Post-offensive racial comedy often makes some sort of statement about race, but the comedy usually outweighs the message. Leave it to experimental theatre to take the next step, to employ racist stereotypes and a lot of absurd humor to make a piece of theatre that takes the most honest, realistic look at race I may ever have seen. From the HERE website: "Writer/director Young Jean Lee’s worst nightmare was to create a predictable, confessional, Korean-American identity play with a flowery Asian-sounding title—so she did just that." The product is Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, and it's fucking great.
James and I went Monday night. Having heard Young Jean read at the New Dramatists welcome, I knew that this was not your standard ethnic identity play. (James: "I just don't want anything heartwarming." Me: "I really think you don't have to worry.") Young Jean is sharp. She is relentless. And she is wicked funny. She's also a daring writer and director, and this is no conventionally structured play.
I've found that the best way to make theater that unsettles and challenges my audience is to do things that make me uncomfortable. I work with stories that I find trite and embarrassing, I keep the development of the text as open and unstable as possible throughout the rehearsal and performance process, and I emphasize rather than hide problems in the text and production. I'm constantly trying to find value in unexpected places. My work is about struggling to achieve something in the face of failure and incompetence and not-knowing. The discomfort and awkwardness involved in watching this struggle reflects the truth of my experience.And it really works. The play's mostly vignettes - a Korean-American girl rants deadpan that all Asians are retarded; three Korean women dance a hilariously macabre dance that I won't give away to you now; a white couple has the most inane relationship fight you've ever seen on a stage (that you've also seen on a stage a hundred times before) - that rarely add up to a simple throughline. You can't say how it holds together, but you know it does.
The show is incredibly funny, and for all of its ambiguity, also one of the clearest pieces on race I've ever seen. Anyone claiming to have an answer to anything about race is just wrong - part of why I don't like to engage this issue is because I just don't know. I don't know where culture, ethnicity, and race begin and end, I don't know how to really deal with and get over the weird racial aspects of my growing up, I don't know what to do. Young Jean Lee doesn't, either. Towards the end of the play the Korean women and the Korean-American girl intone, "I write this horrible, racist shit and then try to imply that I'm somehow fighting racism by being racist, and that being racist is a more effective way of fighting racism than actually fighting it."
What she does know for sure is that being polite is not the answer. When Young Jean read at New Dramatists, one of her pieces was the opening monologue from this play. From practically the first word she was met with uproarious laughter. On Monday night it was different. I don't have the script, but the Asian-American girl walks out and says something like, "Have you noticed that all Asian-Americans are retarded?" I really think the (mostly white) audience really didn't know if it was okay to laugh. (Granted, we had just been watching a slightly disturbing bit of video art. But still - it's delivered practically like deadpan stand-up.) I really think the monologue is written for laughs. The audience was almost entirely silent. (I would have laughed, but even I'm not gonna be the one white girl laughing at calling Koreans monkeys.) They did eventually warm up, and by the end they were laughing. But the first line that got an audible laugh was also the first line that rather than mocking Asians, was mocking whites.
I tend to say that I don't like plays about race. I don't like plays that put their social agenda before theatre, but I also think that I just haven't found a play before that dealt with race in a way that spoke to me - ambiguous, inconclusive, and without a thought towards politeness or respect. Which is very different from being disrespectful - it's just not getting caught up in what's polite. It's not being afraid to laugh at a joke or interrogate a stereotype by using it. It's also really fucking good theatre, that's funny and bright and jaded and immediate. This wasn't a perfect play - neither well-made nor perfectly executed. But it was daring, honest, smart, accessible, and - did I mention? - really freaking funny. It dares you to laugh, makes you ask what that means, and then is with you when you don't find an answer.