Boom Arts: A dance for freedom

"Chang(e)" tells the story of the short life of activist/artist Kathy Change, an "alarm against Armageddon"

By ELIZABETH WHELAN

“A universe full of love and wonderful possibilities would be yours if only you would reach for it. You are sitting in timid conformity… Do a dance for freedom.”—Kathy Change, 1996

Kathy Change: an activist, artist and dreamer who devoted her life to spreading her message of radical change in the name of peace, social equality, and a higher sense of global consciousness. She was born in Ohio with the name Kathy Chang, which she eventually switched to Change for performance. Her life was a culmination of misunderstood yet passionately persistent warnings of the social evils of an increasingly catastrophic world. Her vision was hopeful, but the increasing frustration and helplessness she felt led to her own self-immolation on October 22, 1996, when she doused herself with gasoline and lit a match.

Chang(e)—the third section of a trilogy of dance/theater plays that paid homage to Asian American visionaries with early deaths by NYC-based movement artist and actor Soomi Kim directed by Suzi Takahashi—depicts the life and work of a woman whose character was as vibrant as the technicolor wings she danced in while screaming words of warning against nuclear warfare, environmental degradation, the war on drugs, and every other social problem you could name. Boom Arts, a non-profit presenting organization for contemporary art, seeks out artistically adventurous and unusual work to bring to the Portland community, and this revised version of Kim and Takahashi’s 2014 original hybrid play fit in perfectly with Boom Arts’ programming.

The first time Chang(e) was performed, it was a short work-in progress shown in Philadelphia, where Change spent what would be the last years of her complicated life. Change believed the place to start a revolution was at a university, so she frequented The University of Pennsylvania, where she eventually killed herself in front of a peace statue. Kim mentioned after the show that lots of Change’s friends attended this performance, and were crucial in piecing together her story as the work continued to evolve. It was finally presented as an evening-length piece in New York.

Soomi Kim as Kathy Change in “Chang(e)”/ Photo by Benjamin Heller

Touring to Portland called for a downsizing of the original cast, but the show lost none of its integrity without three of its cast. Well-crafted with visuals projected onto a screen in the back of the Headwaters Theatre in the Piedmont neighborhood of Portland, the digital media guided the audience through different areas of Philadelphia as Change’s life unfolded. Parts of the video included clips of Penn student Brendan McGeever, who first met Change on campus where he also worked as a radio DJ for WQHS, the university’s student-run station. He interviewed Change for the station. McGeever, played by experimental dancer and actor Zëk Stewart, was one of the only students at the Ivy League university that paid attention to Change and her politics. As conveyed by the simple but powerful choreography, Change’s daily efforts to enlighten the students in a vast array of performance and verbal protests were often met with mockery, annoyance, or—perhaps the most frustrating response for any activist—being completely ignored.

Another section of the show included footage and sounds of trains rushing by, which was coincidentally reinforced by the actual trains running directly outside Headwater Theatre. The building shook as the cars rumbled down the tracks just on the other side of the theater wall, providing an unplanned cinemax experience that made Change’s story feel as though it was unfolding in real time. In the post-show conversation, Kim explained that the trains in the soundscape and visuals were meant to signal a sense of urgency, similar to Change’s insistence upon the dire need for complete social transformation. She also mentioned that Change authored a children’s picture book, The Iron MoonHunter, which painted the story of a mystical train that collected lost souls of Chinese rail workers in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

The post-show conversation, hosted by Boom Arts’ curator and producer Ruth Wikler-Luker, gathered Soomi Kim; psychologist and therapist Jane Vogel, who founded Age & Gender Equity in the Arts; and Courtney Rae, an activist and member of Portland’s Resistance. At one point, while discussing how marketing subliminally plays a role in activism, Rae commented, “People need to be more open to activists. Americans are conditioned to respond to super commercialized media, sound bites and professional-looking ads. Activists are people speaking from the heart. They aren’t using all that.”

There was something hauntingly ironic about the context of this comment: We all had paid to sit in the theater to re-live Change’s life and message through various forms of visual media, professional acting and dancing, but just over 20 years ago, Change herself had gone dancing into the streets, speaking from her heart as an artist and activist, yet felt so unheard that she turned to self-immolation.

Soomi Kim in “Chang(e)”, a stage biography of activist/artist Kathy Change/Photo by Benjamin Heller

Change had attempted suicide multiple times, and psychologist Vogel chillingly suggested that had she not killed herself, the treatment that would have been available for Change could possibly have been worse than her death. Vogel assumed Change would have been involuntarily admitted to a psychiatric ward for manic depression and psychosis, followed by grueling drug treatment.

On the brighter side of things, if there’s one thing artists are good at, it’s understanding one another. Kim and Takahashi have created a masterful remembrance of Change, and they have continued to carry her legacy onward as the work evolved and travelled to different cities. Kim’s performance reflected the detailed research she did on Change, and her embodiment of Kathy was a reminder that understanding and empathy are derivative of taking the time to put yourself in another’s shoes. Kim collaborated with costume designer Machine Dazzle (yes, his costume designs were as incredible as his name) to capture the colorful spirit of Change. Dazzle was eager to join the project, remembering back to a time he had seen Change perform in all of her eccentric glory.

In the final moments of the performance, Kim emerged from the darkness wearing a dress of flames, complete with a mask and sparkling red glitter. She opened and closed her arms in somber remembrance of Change’s last moments when she doused herself with gasoline and lit herself on fire. Kim’s costume flickered back and forth, and she looked upward with hope. Kim represented the phoenix within Change, transforming herself through fire to let her death become the impetus for conversation and social change. After the show, Kim likened Change’s intentions to that of the Arab Spring—her hope was to spur a series of anti-government revolts and demonstrations that would form a revolution.

Some of Change’s last words echoed in the theater during the last few minutes of the show. She said, “Call me a flaming radical burning for attention, but my real intention is to spark a discussion of how we can peacefully transform our world. America, I offer myself to you as an alarm against Armageddon and a torch for liberty.”

With a conversation immediately following the applause of a beautifully crafted work of art to honor Change’s dreams for a world of peace, you could say that Soomi Kim and Suzi Takahashi, along with the incredible talented cast and crew did just that for Kathy Change.

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