Friday, March 16, 2018

Everything Old Is New Again

In 1998 a Finnish company named Radiolinja began selling ring tones for mobile phones and distributing media content through people's cell phones. In other words, 2018 marks the 20th anniversary of when cell phones began annoying actors and audiences in theatres around the world. Can two decades have passed so quickly since the first announcement asking ticket buyers to please turn off their cell phones before the show starts?

One simple way to note the omnipresence of such announcements is that people now ignore them the same way they ignore the safety instructions delivered by flight attendants prior to takeoff. Another is to pay attention to how various theatre artists have tried to seize control of an annoying situation by hijacking the obligatory announcement.

For years, the Kinsey Sicks have included a warning in their pre-show announcement that "If we hear your cell phone go off during the performance, a member of the Kinsey Sicks will come out into the audience and shove it up your ass!" On January 10, 2009, Patti LuPone made headlines when she stopped a performance of Gypsy at the St. James Theatre after realizing that an audience member was taking pictures of her on a cell phone.

Six years later, in June of 2015, LuPone skillfully palmed someone's cellphone as she made her exit from the stage during a performance of Shows For Days.

In addition to incorporating mobile phones into their scripts, many playwrights have gotten creative with pre-show announcements in order to ensure that audiences pay careful attention. Two new American plays receiving their regional premieres from theatre companies in San Francisco offer stellar examples of how this is accomplished.
  • At the Strand Theatre on Market Street, an actor takes center stage before the performance begins and introduces himself to the audience as the playwright. After reminding people to turn off their phones, he explains that the peculiar way in which he has written his script requires them to pay careful attention. Because Vietgone is a play about Vietnamese refugees struggling to find a new identity in America, the Vietnamese characters onstage will speak contemporary American English, saying things like “Yo, what’s up, white people?” while the American characters will speak in broken English comprised of stereotypical American language such as “Yee-haw! Get’er done. Cheeseburger. Waffle fries. Cholesterol!”
  • Over at the Custom Made Theatre on Sutter Street, an African American actor in a police uniform takes center stage as one of his hands keeps itching to reach for his wooden baton. Sternly informing the audience that they are free to leave their cell phones on, he then points to the two "Laugh" signs hanging from the ceiling (like the signs one might except to see in a television studio). Carefully, but emphatically, he explains that when those signs are lit, it is appropriate to laugh. However, anyone who laughs at an inappropriate moment will be dealt with accordingly.
* * * * * * * * *
Written by Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm, Hooded, or Being Black For Dummies is being presented by Custom Made Theatre as part of a producing partnership with Playwrights Foundation (which presented a reading of the play during the 2015 Bay Area Playwrights Festival). The action begins in a holding cell at a Baltimore police station where two 14-year-old African Americans are awaiting their release after being charged with trespassing in a cemetery.
  • Tru (Tre’Vonne Bell) is a child of Baltimore's inner city. Streetwise, attuned to Black culture, and sharp as a tack, he rarely gets to see his mother (who works two jobs) although he knows that she loves him because she always stops in his bedroom doorway before leaving the house. Tru loves waking up to the smell of his mother's perfume and proudly wears a pair of ruby red, glitter-encrusted sneakers.
  • Marquis (Jesse Franklin Charles Vaughn) is a child of privilege. Adopted by a wealthy white couple and raised in an atmosphere of physical comfort and financial security, he lives in a gated community named Achievement Heights, has a fiercely protective mother who is not afraid to stare down the police over her son's legal rights, and attends a squeaky clean prep school where most of the students are lily white.
Tre’Vonne Bell (Tru) and Jesse Franklin Charles Vaughn (Marquis)
in a scene from Hooded, or Being Black For Dummies
(Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Whereas Marquis looks to such classical heroes as Apollo, Dionysus, and Nietzsche for inspiration, Tru's oracle is the late Tupac Shakur. As they wait in the holding cell, Tru is lying face down on the floor with his arms splayed in front of him. When Marquis asks him what he's doing, Tru replies "I'm Trayvoning." It's that kind of show.

When Marquis's ultra-liberal, adoptive mother, Debra (Jessica Risco), arrives at the police station to claim her son, she demands to know why Tru was picked up. In no time at all, she has intimidated the police, claimed responsibility for Tru, announced that she is now the boy's attorney, brought him back to Achievement Heights so that Marquis can have "a cultural friend," and suggested that Tru stay with them for a while so that the two boys can help each other study. Bottom line: Don't fuck with Deb.

Jesse Franklin Charles Vaughn (Marquis), Jessica Risco
(Deb), and Tre’Vonne Bell (Tru) in a scene from
Hooded, or Being Black For Dummies (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Along the way, Tru and Marquis must deal with such superficial school friends as two very white 14-year-old jocks named Hunter (Peter Alexander) and Fielder (Max Seijas), and a trio of selfie-addicted cheerleaders named Prairie (Delaney Corbitt), Clementine (Rebecca Hodges), and Meadow (Ari Lagomarsino).

Rebecca Hodges (Clementine), Ari Lagomarsino (Meadow)
and Jessica Risco (Debra) pose for a selfie in a scene from
Hooded, or Being Black For Dummies (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Tru quickly realizes that the book-learned Marquis is completely unschooled in the ways of black youth and drafts a 114-page manual which, among other things, explains the necessity of ending any important statement with the word "bitch," grabbing your crotch for further emphasis, and making any conversation with a woman all about your dick.

Tre’Vonne Bell (Tru), Jesse Franklin Charles Vaughn (Marquis)
and Rebecca Hodges (Clementine) in a scene from
Hooded, or Being Black For Dummies (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Unfortunately, when Tru's textbook -- “Being Black for Dummies” -- falls into the hands of the impressionable Hunter, clueless cultural appropriation leads to tragedy. Meanwhile, Tru's tutoring of Marquis in how to dress and walk like a black man paves the way for a string of surprises.

Max Seijas (Fielder), Tre’Vonne Bell (Tru), Peter Alexander (Hunter)
and Jesse Franklin Charles Vaughn (Marquis) in a scene from
Hooded, or Being Black For Dummies (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

One surprise is Clementine's growing perception of Marquis as some kind of "Magical Negro." When she eagerly accepts his invitation to go out on a date, the shy and somewhat bookish prep schooler is stunned at how easily she said "Yes."

Jesse Franklin Charles Vaughn (Marquis) and
Rebecca Hodges (Clementine) in a scene from
Hooded, or Being Black For Dummies (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

When news of Hunter's death spreads and the school's dean calls Marquis in for questioning about the book found in Hunter's possession, the simple fact that Marquis is wearing a hoodie makes him suspect. Despite his protestations of innocence, the school administrator (also played by Peter Alexander) expels Marquis from the prep school that has been his social world.

Peter Alexander (Dean), Jesse Franklin Charles Vaughn (Marquis),
and B.E. Rivers (Officer Borzoi) in a scene from
Hooded, or Being Black For Dummies (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Chisholm's play received its world premiere at the Mosaic Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. in January 2017. Since then, it has started to be produced by some small regional theatres. Working on a unit set designed by Celeste Martore with costumes by Maggie Whitaker, projections by Sarah Phykitt, lighting by Maxx Kurzunski, and sound by Chris Sauceda, director Lisa Marie Rollins has staged Hooded with an acute sensitivity to its street humor and timeliness.

While Jesse Brisco shines as the aggressive Deb, she quickly disappears from the stage, leaving the bulk of the show in the hands of Jesse Franklin Charles Vaughn as the polite and somewhat nerdy Marquis and Tre’Vonne Bell, whose charismatic Tru makes it almost impossible to look away from him.

It wasn’t until I arrived home from the opening night performance that I realized the strong parallels Chisholm’s play has to Mark Twain’s first historical novel: The Prince and the Pauper (1881). While poking around the web, I came across this interesting quote from the playwright as he described part of his childhood to an interviewer:
"I used to read this book of fairy tales and Mother Goose rhymes in secret because the book was part of a set that my grandmother kept in the off-limits sitting room and the books were for decorative purposes only."
Jesse Franklin Charles Vaughn (Marquis)
and B.E. Rivers (Dionysus) in a scene from
Hooded, or Being Black For Dummies (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Performances of Hooded, or Being Black For Dummies continue through April 7 at Custom Made Theatre (click here for tickets).

* * * * * * * * *
Before I discuss Qui Nguyen's impressive new play, Vietgone (which received its world premiere from South Coast Repertory in October 2015), let me take a moment to extol the restorative powers of live theatre. As someone who occasionally has trouble getting a good night's sleep, I often worry about attending a performance when I'm feeling under the weather. With the exception of battling jet lag, I've often found that the sheer ritual of attending a live performance (combined with the audience's involvement in what is happening onstage) has done more to pull my wits together than any pre-emptive pill.

On the opening night of Vietgone, I entered the Strand's lobby feeling as if I'd had the wind knocked out of my sails and yet, 20 minutes into the show, I was caught up in the intricacies of Nguyen's script, the brisk stage direction by Jaime CastaƱeda, and the sheer utility of Brian Sidney Bembridge's unit set which (enhanced by Chris Lundahl's projections) features a skeletal bridge that allows actors to traverse the revolving stage beneath them.

James Seol (Quang) and Stephen Hu (Nhan) in
a scene from Vietgone (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Whether using the bridge to mimic a helicopter leaving Saigon in late April of 1975 or watching the turntable zip around to move the action into the barracks and mess hall of a refugee camp in Arkansas, Bembridge's design allows a complicated story to unravel with remarkable fluidity. The audience can easily enjoy following two men as they motorcycle from Arkansas to California (with roadside stops in Oklahoma City, Amarillo, New Mexico and Arizona) as well as watching a crotchety middle-aged Asian woman (who had been flirting with a handsome young stud in the hope that he would help her return to Saigon) walk in on her daughter having sex atop a bunk bed with the very same man.

Cindy Im (Huong), James Seol (Quang), and Jenelle Chu
(Tong) in a scene from Vietgone (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Vietgone centers around the misadventures of Quang (James Seol), a Vietnamese helicopter pilot who spent a year training in the United States, went back to Saigon, and narrowly escaped during the critical moments when American forces were pulling out of Vietnam. Together with his friend Nhan (Stephen Hu), he managed to land on the deck of the U.S.S. Midway. Before he could return home to save his wife, Thu, and their two children, the aircraft carrier's crew had to push his helicopter into the ocean in order to make way for American planes to land.

What becomes painfully evident is that, for the Vietnamese refugees who had their lives turned upside down, there is little chance of ever returning home. That leaves them with a tough choice: try to adapt to a new life in a new country or grow bitter and insist on living in the past.

Cindy Im (Thu) and James Seol (Quang) in a
scene from Vietgone (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Vietgone poses some stiff challenges for its audience. The talented cast of five Asian-American actors takes on numerous roles that cross nationalities and generations. Although the two romantic leads remain easily recognizable, the constant use of flashbacks set in Saigon and a refugee camp at Fort Chaffee can easily become confusing.
  • Quang is on a hopeless quest to return to Saigon and be reunited with his family, even though doing so would most likely lead to being slaughtered by the Viet Cong. He deeply resents the hippie he meets who apologizes for America's entry into the war but cannot possibly know what it was like to live in South Vietnam overwhelmed by the fear that any day could be your last.
  • Tong (who professes not to believe in love and applies for placement in a foster family program), hopes to find a new life for herself that might offer better opportunities than she could ever hope to find in Vietnam. Despite the obvious sexual heat she generates with Quang, she wants nothing to do with a long-term relationship. Part of the reason for her reluctance to get emotionally involved with anyone may be because her mother has never told Tong that she loves her.
Cindy Im (Huong) and Jenelle Chu (Tong) in a
scene from Vietgone (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
  • Huong (Tong's mother) never wanted to leave her son, Khue, behind in Saigon and had to be convinced that she should accompany Tong to America. While in Fort Chaffee, she complains bitterly about everything, but lights up after meeting Quang and sharing the losses of family members they were forced to leave behind as they fled Vietnam.
  • Nhan has absolutely no desire to return to Saigon, especially after savoring the joys of free love, marijuana, and burritos.
Music plays a strong role in Nguyen's Vietgone, whether it be the sounds of Saigon or soundtrack clips from such popular romantic movies as Dirty Dancing. While the raps written by Qui Nguyen didn't strike me as particularly strong, I was surprised by the comments of the popular DJ/producer who composed new music for American Conservatory Theater's production. As Shammy Dee explains:
“When hip-hop culture was birthed back in the day, it was a subculture of primarily Black and Latino people in New York. It wasn’t on a mass stage. It was something akin to punk when it came around; it was very underground. Hip-hop contained this raw energy that the mainstream culture didn’t understand. People initially thought it was a fad, that it would pass. They didn’t think it could be something bigger. But if you lived the culture, you knew and felt the energy behind it. There’s something about outcasts (being an outcast and having this music and culture you can relate to) that gives you this sense of belonging. There’s a palpable feeling that comes with loving this music and knowing that there are others who vibe with it, too. Hip-hop gives Vietgone an energy that you wouldn’t get if it was a traditional play.“
Jenelle Chu (Tong) and James Seol (Quang) in a
scene from Vietgone (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
“With hip-hop theater, songs can either create additional context or expand a moment. You can dig deeper into an emotion with a song, rather than saying ‘I'm upset.' Music can create that feeling, just like a movie score does. These songs in Vietgone pull you in because, just like with Hamilton and other hip-hop theater pieces, you're experiencing storytelling in a different way. The play definitely stands on its own (the writing is that strong) but music has a sneaky way of connecting people who wouldn't connect otherwise. In these raps, it's almost like you're hearing the inner dialogue, reasoning, and thought processes of these characters, speaking about things that we can all connect to: the sadness of loss, the frustration of mistakes, and the excitement of love.”
In recent years, many baby boomers have been amused (and occasionally annoyed) by the way hipster culture has laid claim to certain artistic expressions as springing from their own inspiration without any awareness of how these same techniques were used by previous generations.
  • Now 420 years old, Western opera got its start as an art form in Italy in 1598. 
  • Musical theatre got its start in America more than 150 years ago, with 1866's production of The Black Crook
  • Both art forms make frequent use of song as a way of expressing one's emotions and communicating one's inner thoughts to an audience. Whether one thinks of Tosca's famous aria, "Vissi d'arte" or the "Twin Soliloquies" from 1949's South Pacific, the skill with which these numbers express their characters' emotions demonstrates a remarkable use of musical and dramatic craft.
My own reaction to Shammy Dee's wonder at the power of music to express a character's internal thoughts is to point out that, in each generation of songwriters, certain talents stand far above the others. Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi were giants of 19th-century opera. The genius of Stephen Sondheim has been hailed far and wide as if he were the Mozart of the 20th century. Although more and more hip hop artists are now writing for the stage, few of them share the encyclopedic knowledge of musical theatre enjoyed by their idol, Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Jomar Tagatac (Bobby) and Jenelle Chu (Tong) in
a scene from Vietgone (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

With costumes by Jessie Amoroso, lighting by Wen-Ling Liao, and some excellent sound design by Jake Rodriguez, Vietgone showcases the versatility of Jomar Tagatac (who portrays the playwright, Giai, and Bobby), Stephen Hu (who appears as Nhan and Khue), and Cindy Im, who doubles as Quang's wife, Thu, and his future mother-in-law, Huong). James Seol (Quang) and Jenelle Chu (Tong) shine as the two romantic leads. The final scene, in which the playwright (Jomar Tagatac) tries to interview his elderly father (James Seol) is a beautiful piece of writing that is well worth the price of admission.

Performances of Vietgone continue through April 22 at the Strand Theatre (click here for tickets).

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