Tuesday, March 29, 2011

In Matters of Pride and Prejudice

Gone are the days when old-fashioned epithets like "schwarzer," "spic," and "kike" were enough to get you thrown out of polite company. Now you really have to think about who -- or how many different factions -- you'll piss off as soon as you open your big fat mouth.

A few weeks ago a friend and I were discussing some of the despicable political maneuvers by newly-elected Republican governors like Scott Walker (Wisconsin), Rick Snyder (Michigan), and Rick Scott (Florida). Aghast at their naked power grabs, he gasped "I just don't understand how people can even think like that!" Without hesitating, I told him I could provide the answer in one simple word.


But you know what they say: Put two Jews in a room and then try to get them to agree on something!  Consider the following clip from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and you'll see what I mean:

The other day I watched a deliciously goofy video of an excited teenager singing the song he had written about the thing he loved most in this world. As much as I enjoyed his energy and enthusiasm, I found myself wondering: Does the fact that I'm having a good time watching him have a good time make me racist?  You be the judge:

Then of course, we come to the recent case of UCLA student Alexandra Wallace, the dumb blonde whose unfortunate video drew this sharp response from Korean-American comedian David So:

Not to mention this rant from noted Thai-American playwright, Prince Gomolvilas:

The bottom line is that racism is a learned behavior and that words have more power than we often give them credit for. If we don't understand their meaning -- and how our latent (or blatant) racism impacts the people around us -- we haven't gotten very far beyond dragging our knuckles on the ground.

Learning to acknowledge and confront the racism in our daily lives lies at the core of Young Jean Lee's bristling and sarcastic comedy, Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven (which recently received its Bay area premiere as a co-production by Crowded Fire Theater and the Asian American Theater Company).  The following trailer offers a mere taste of Lee's writing (which ranges from hysterically funny to furiously sad).

Directed by Marissa Wolf and starring Cindy Im as the disgruntled Korean American at the center of the play, Lee's script can be difficult to follow at times:
  • The opening audio/video sequence shows the playwright making a video in which she is repeatedly slapped in the face.
  • Lee's writing for the scene in which a young white woman tells her boyfriend that they need to break up because, among other things, she can't stand the sight of his nose, can take your breath away.
  • There are many moments in the play when the women playing Koreans 1, 2, and 3 (who speak in their native Asian languages) do an excessive amount of screaming as they run around the stage.
  • Some scenes (such as the one in which a dying Korean woman asks her favorite granddaughter to embrace Jesus) feel as if they were written as comedy skits for another play.
  • Other moments, in which a heterosexual couple describe how cool it is to be white, hit home with a bitter irony.

A Korean American woman (Cindy Im, at right) makes fun of
a more traditional Korean (Katie Chan, left) in Young Jean Lee's
Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven (Photo by: Dave Nowakowski)

AATC's artistic director, Duy Nguyen, states that:
“I have to thank Mina Morita of Berkeley Rep (and an AATC company director as well) for introducing us to this very funny, very shocking, very stylish play. What Young Jean Lee is doing with her work, and specifically with Songs, instantly transcends the usual race talk and shines an incisive light on the Asian American female."
In the following video clip (recorded in New York in 2006), one gets a sense of how skillfully Lee wields her words for both comedic and dramatic effect:

I was especially impressed by Stephanie Buchner's lighting and the surprising beauty of Emily Greene's all-pressboard unit set. Cindy Im, Alexis Papedo, and Josh Schell shone in the lead roles (with Mimu Tsujimura, Lily Tung Crystal, and Katie Chan as three Korean woman determined to prove that Korean Christians can be much more evil than white Christians). I continue to be amazed at Marissa Wolf's skill at helping her actors use their body language to make the kinds of dramatic statements that words alone cannot.

Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven offers theatergoers a mixed experience during which it's interesting to see just who in the audience is laughing at what (not everyone reacts the same way to certain bits). Lee's play will certainly pushes the audience;s buttons and makes people think a lot more seriously about the racist stereotypes racing around their minds.  Her approach is far more challenging and confrontational than the following number from Avenue Q:

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