Thursday, October 8, 2015

Excuse me as I rave... (an blog review of VIETGONE by Qui Nguyen at South Coast Repertory Theatre)

I just got home after seeing a preview of VIETGONE by Qui Nguyen at South Coast Rep, so take in to account that what I saw was pre-opening, "not review ready." That said... the show blew me away! 

I first encountered Qui's writing while directing a staged reading of "SHE KILLS MONSTERS (THE ADVENTURERS EDITION)" for Artists at Play in Los Angeles last year. The play was shamelessly geeky, but also touching, tragic, and irreverent. 
I was impressed with his knack for dialogue, and skill at turning a play around on a dime from ridiculous hilarity, to sharp pointed emotional drama, and back again. His writing is kind of a roller-coaster that way, allowing for great theatricality and very human stories with flawed, lovable characters who carry their pain but are never weighed down by it.
I fell in love with SKM and saw a lot of the same skill and deft storytelling in VIETGONE tonight... And after this, I'm just gonna say it... Qui Nguyen is my theatre spirit animal!!!
VIETGONE is a non linear, retelling of how his mother and father met in the shadow and aftermath of the Vietnam War... But it is truly a REtelling and not a telling. It is an interpretation of the events in 1975 as told to the playwright and interpreted through his own contemporary lens. Through that lens, the typical, weighty "immigrant Refugee" story of ones parents that we often see in Asian American literature is vibrantly transformed in to a hip, witty, irreverent and touching narrative that surprises at every turn.
We are not phased when characters break in to hip hop spoken word when their emotions over take them. We are not phased when 70's slang, or perhaps Vietnamese accented English is replaced with contemporary or street vernacular. Qui's parents swear with the affable, streetwise voices of contemporary, smart, middle class, educated mixed up 20-30 something New Yorkers. Not because they actually were, but because thats who Qui, the playwright is and how he makes you see his parents from their own perspective.
There is no affectation of what it is to be foreign or other, but rather what it is to be in a place that is foreign. The "American" characters they encounter speak in broken English. We watch them adjust to the strangeness of their new life as refugees, we watch them make the realization that they have gone from the middle class citizens they were back home in Vietnam, to becoming "the Chinese" (referring to the poor and disenfranchised "immigrants laborers" they looked down on back home before the war) Its subversive subtleties like these that pepper throughout the play that create relatability through a spoonfull of sugary crass humor that enlightens while it satarizes.    
They muddle through this experience and eventually find temporary comfort in mutually casual sex, and its steamy and scintillating in all those ways you dont want to imagine your parents having sex. But its also very human and flawed and real. There are no clean story book romances here, just messy, complicated relationships when damaged people find intimacy on accident.
Perhaps they shouldn't be together. Perhaps they are too haunted by baggage more traumatizing than many of us could ever grasp, But they are not victims of war, they are survivors of war with scars that run deep. Their roots are showing and there is no way to regain "normal," There is only the option to build a new normal which is tragic in and of itself. And it is hilarious and sexy and ridiculous and gut-wrenchingly touching watching them make this journey.
The cast of five are efficient, the leading couple carrying their character arcs through as the other 3 bounce through multiple characters as grounded as the father's war buddy best friend, and as wacky as the Ninja back up army that protect a biker his dad got in to a brawl with at a bar (the playwright assures us this is the truth as the story was told to him).  The ensemble is deft and light while allowing the scars of loss just beneath the surface to inform much of the raucous humor.  
Its just an all around wonderful show and thats all I can say. 

Its always a point of frustration when I see theatre that really touches me because often there really are no words for it when someone's storytelling makes you feel, viscerally. I'll write about it, I'll tell people about it, but it doesn't encapsulate the emotion of "YOU ALL NEED TO SEE THIS, EXPERIENCE THIS FEEL THIS BECAUSE IT MADE ME LAUGH, IT MADE ME THINK, IT OPENED ME UP AND LEFT ME RAW IN PLACES AND UNDERSTAND THINGS I WOULDNT HAVE OTHERWISE AND THATS IMPORTANT!!" 
With theatre it often feels even more urgent more tragic because theres no DVD or blu-ray. Its a play with a limited run, It will close and that experience will remain momentary and so easy to miss and hard to share with others... To add insult to injury its in Costa Mesa, a city thats equally far from friends in San Diego and friends in LA.
So all I can say is... LA People, San Diego People, its worth the drive. 
If you get the chance, GO SEE this!


When: Previews begin October 4th. Regular performances Friday through Oct. 25; 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays (no 7:45 p.m. performances Oct. 25).
Where: Julianne Argyros Stage, South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
How much: General admission is $22-$53 for previews, $30-$77 for regular performances. Prices vary by date and curtain time; discounts for seniors, students under 25 with ID and educators with ID
Call: 714-708-5555

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

On the Mikado, Yellowface, and Gilbert and Sullivan.... (Again)

So Mikado is back in the news again... Yellowface is back in the news...  again and honestly, it is so exhausting that this is back up, that I'm having this same conversation... Initially I was like, "you know, I dont want to talk about Mikado any more... I dont want to talk about Yellowfacing the Gilbert and Sullivan classic anymore, I'm just exhausted by it.  I'm not engaging in any comment threads, I'm not posting about it I just am too demoralized by it coming back up AGAIN, to even engage...

But A friend asked me to comment, and it makes you go, "If I dont comment, then the perspective is not seen." and like Don Corleone, it just keeps pullin ya back in... 

see, even though I appreciate the discussion, and the questions and Im glad for them cause it means people are opening their minds and their empathy for that bit of time to recognize their own privilege,,.  and I really do appreciate that.   It just gets so frustrating that it happens so often and that a culture of so called "color blindness"  also blinds people to the marginalizing effects of misrepresentation... and the systemic brings. but I accept it cause I kinda have to...  Its a daily everyday part of my life... so here we go... 


Heres the thing... if its about making fun of British people and British society, then make them British. If you want to fictionalize a British society in order to criticize its social trappings, and point out the inherent foolishness of their cultural order, then the best thing to do to serve the storytelling and our modern context that is unfamiliar with 100+ year old British high society and focus the storytelling on what the play is supposedly about., then you should put them in tails and bowler hats and mustaches and corsets. That just makes sense narratively. 

Then you got to ask yourself, if these characters have made up nonsensical names that resemble no culture on earth, but sound like a euphemism for defecation, if they have fictional buffoon like characteristics that are caricatures of people not resembling actual people or cultures, then why or what is the attachment to making them distinctly Japanese-esque?

What is it about making them Japanese and making Japanese-ness into this extreme, wacky "other" so important to the story? 

If the story is more effective because "those oriental people are so wierd" then you have a problem! 

If its effective because "Japanese are so different and that difference makes our social commentary innocuous because that way we're not offending the any normal people" then thats a problem. 
if its because "it was traditionally written as a representation of what Japanese people are actually like" thats definitely a problem. 
If its cause the "costumes are pretty" then not only is that a problem, it also doesn't serve the story, not to mention its pretty dehumanizing in that you're basically just saying "we wanna skin the Japanese people and wear them cause its fashionable." 

At the end of the day, the real reason why G&S decided to write a critique of British class structure and set it in a mythical Japan that looks more like Dr. Suess is because at the time, people saw Asians as bizarre, inhuman, savage and inherently hilarious. The aesthetic is more about otherness for a laugh than it is about understanding or exchange of an actual culture and that is not about political correctness.  Its just plain ol period specific racist hate speech. 

Now I do not hold this against G&S, it was just the point of view at the time...  It is a period piece after all... But theoretically, we've had 100+ years to know better and to figure out how to make this ancient story work in the present day..., (That is why we don't do minstrel plays anymore and we have women playing Female roles when we do Shakespeare instead of young boys playing women as men wanted them to be.... Somehow, its harder for us to carry over this sense of empathy over tradition to Asians and Asian Americans and that is where I challenge all of us to ask... "WHY is that?"  How are you and the rest of our society and culture a victim to these age old tropes about Asians and Asian-ness that it does not grant me the benefit of your empathy the way it does women and African Americans?)

NOW, to next level this..., every time we get in to Mikado played in Yellow face, the first question I ask is, "Well how many Asian people did they get involved?" (Which is usually very few. maybe one or two if that at all... at which point I ask internally, how many self respecting Asian or Asian American people even want to be involved with this crap unless the director has a vision that serves the story, and not the caricature. 

When I find out that no Asians show up to the auditions... I think "WELL, that should probably have been the first tell tale sign that theres something wrong with your show in 2015"

That said, G&S were brilliant. amazing songwriter/lyricist with a legacy of great work. Mikado is part of that. but with any classic you have to ask yourself "what makes this relevant to context of today that we should do it here and now? If you know your audience, then what new or universal meaning does this 100+ year old work have in today's context?" And if you're not asking that question, what kind of director are you? 

Against the backdrop of today where AAPI's have been shut down to only 4% of available new roles on broadway in the past few seasons, and where tv/film luminaries like Aaron Sorkin feel like adapting screenplays from properties based on real life Asian Americans are a waste of time because noone in their right mind will cast an Asian American Lead actor, and the remaining roles that AAPI actors do get are mostly two dimensional, stereotypical portrayals, that ultimately play in to all kinds of systemic exclusion of AAPI's.  For example, the low rates of promotion to executive and management positions despite high representation in say the tech industry. Multiple false accusations of espionage against American Citizens.  And of course, the politicians who rant anti immigrant rhetoric, inspire hate crimes, create a culture where AAPI public school students survey at the highest rate of bullying of all racial groups, and Asian American Women clocking in at statistically the highest rate of teen suicide amongst their peers. To me its not insignificant

No, one production of the Mikado is not gonna make people hate all Asians or Asian Americans, but it is symptomatic of a culture that systemically dehumanizes and belittles perceptions of AAPI's in our culture, and continues to disenfranchise them. 

That said, there have been great productions that used all Asian Casts that allowed for a more sensitive interpretation of the work.  I've seen all white Casts with period British style costumes that were great.  Another inspired production with a multi cultural cast that chose a cartoony Anime inspired aesthetic that played up the ridiculousness of the characters in a modern design aesthetic that was relevant to today's audience. These were Directorial concepts that served the work and the story in the context of contemporary life and sensibilities, vs lazy, trope filled, belittling, minstrel shows that race bait and are just plain awful and tired. 

At the end of the day, when I see these productions like the one at Skirball, I see carelessness, ignorance and sloppy storytelling that lead to really racist results. When I see these companies, I dont think anyone hates me or my Asian-ness, but I do see a bunch of people who are being part of the problem, and not the solution, in addition to just shoddy artistry. 

(so thats my rant... thanks for reading this far with an open mind...)

Sunday, May 17, 2015


Brad Bird is just great at what he does. 
I've been a fan of his since the oft overlooked animated classic IRON GIANT.  Most folks know him for Pixar's THE INCREDIBLES and RATATOUILLE.  But after proving his live action film-making chops on MISSION IMPOSSIBLE- GHOST PROTOCOL Disney has entrusted him to build a mythology behind one of the mainstays of every Disney Magic Kingdom Park with TOMORROWLAND.    

Visually his style is very apparent. A lot of impossibly kinetic motion contrasted by stark stillness, with great attention to pacing and pronounced character moments.

He's also great at capturing that old Spielberg esque sense of childish wonder that makes the film refreshing, and is the spoonful of sugar that drives the films heart and message.

All that said, it is a kids movie that targets an adult audience, so there are moments of story that are kinda spoon fed rather than revealed. And moments where they pretty much say straight out, " no were not going to explain this can we just move on with the story?"

That story which in it self is simple but engaging, particularly when framed with bird's knack for action. And the performances from Clooney and his two young counterparts are relatively one note, but really well delivered.(particularly the younger one who carries a mature wisdom about her) Their characters are designed to contrast and bounce off one another, and once the group is assembled, there's some really great chemistry that at times feels like it really shouldn't work, but really does...

Also, the vision for tomorrowland is glistening and serves as a call to action which reminds you of the the irony that is the disjointed showcase of brands that serves as the films namesake in the park. Sadly I still find it unlikely that Disney corporate will heed Brad Bird's call for a return to the hope, optimism, and innovation that inspired the old "World on the Move" Tomorrowland of 1977.  there are plenty of callbacks to the wonderful classic design aesthetic that fans of Bob Gur and the golden era of Imagineering will appreciate, plus some great nods to the industrial, steampunk inspired "Discoveryland" of Disneyland Paris... I loved these details!

The film serves very much like a refreshing glass of kool-aid to tide us over until someone lets Imagineering revise and reestablish the tomorrowland we all crave. And I'll hapily drink it... It's great fun! And all it really needs to be is fun.