Tuesday, September 23, 2008

I Want To Spoon This Play

Saturday night I went to see Ching Chong Chinaman at Impact Theatre in Berkeley. I didn’t have quite the same reaction to seeing the play that Prince had to reading it, but then again I’m not Asian, even if people do think I am because I have an Asian sounding last name. Note I said “sounding” because “Goy” is in no way shape or form an Asian last name. It’s a French/Swiss name, thank you very much, as well as a derogatory term in Hebrew. Is your last name a swear word? Then shut up and read the rest of this blog.

Ching Chong Chinaman follows the tale of an American family that happens to be of Chinese descent struggling to find its racial and individual identities in our mixed up modern world. While some of the humor was lost on me because I’m not Asian-American, I never felt excluded from the show in anyway. (Years ago I refused to go see the movie Soul Food, even though the previews looked amazing, because the TV and radio ads were so blatantly target to African-Americans so as to make me feel unwanted as a potential audience member.) Even from my white, middle-class, male perspective, the show made me laugh and think.

The show definitely gets a thumbs-up, go see it, groundbreaking Asian-Amercian play, review from me. The performances are strong. The family relationships are fresh and interesting and unlike any I’ve ever seen. For me, a sign of a show’s value is how much it inspires me to create my own art, and this show left me wanting to write my own Father/Daughter relationship play. All that said I cannot help but point out some of the show’s flaws. Think of them more as beauty marks:

I wasn’t sure if J really spoke English or not. Perhaps that’s on purpose, but if it is, that’s not clear. Right now, it’s playing as confusion and not ambiguity.

The sound design of the show was strange. One scene had a Harry Connick Jr. song playing softly underneath it that didn’t seem to relate in anyway to what was happening on stage. I found out later that scene supposedly takes place in a coffee shop. If that’s true, a line needs to be added to indicate that, or the characters need to be carrying coffee cups. Personally, I thought the scene took place in an office, which would serve the story just as well.

I also had issues with the set. On the one hand, it was amazing and transformed La Val’s into another world. On the other hand, it was kitchen sink drama without the kitchen sink. Yes, the show has some absurd elements, but the lack of any appliances in the kitchen did not read as a stylistic choice. The show seemed to want a hyper-realistic kitchen to contrast and highlight the absurd elements of the show. Instead I was sitting there wondering: Where’s the refrigerator? Where’s the stove? Where’s the sink? If you can’t have them because of limitations of the space or budget, find a stylistic way to make that ok.

I’m also not a big fan of clocks on stage. Either they’re running and at the wrong time, or they’re stopped. Again, unless it’s clearly a stylistic choice, it takes me out of the show.

Finally, the script is definitely a work in progress. It doesn’t get its official world premier until the East West Players production next year in Los Angeles. The first half is uneven and gets bogged down trying to set up the emotional weight of the second half, but when that weight kicks in, the humor leads to poignancy and pathos like all good theatre should. If you hang in there, you’ll go on an emotional journey with these characters that’s well worth taking, but the ambitious nature of the play leads to a challenging beginning for the playwright. From what I’ve seen, she’s up to it.

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In 1789, the governor of Australia granted land and some animals to James Ruse in an experiment to see how long it would take him to support himself. Within 15 months he had become self sufficient. The area is still known as Experiment Farm. This is my Experiment Farm to see how long it will take me to support myself by writing.