One of the longstanding cliches of the cultural calendar has been that shows with what’s considered Black subject matter tend to clot around February, the glorified ghetto of “Black History Month.” As such subject matter has been so much in the national consciousness in recent years, Blacks trod the boards more often; the cliche is being eased out of fashion.
And, as American theater progresses in its grand quest for what’s often shorthanded as “EDI” – for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion – a more welcome calendar clotting comes up sometimes, just serendipitously. For instance, there was a weekend back in 2018 when two shows centered on Native American history and identity, Larissa FastHorse’s The Thanksgiving Play and DeLanna Studi’s And So We Walked, opened at Portland’s largest theater companies. Of course, by contrast, one would feel silly noting that multiple plays about, say, white families from Westchester (or West Linn) were running at the same time. But that an increase in diversity stands out is part of the argument for why it’s needed.
And so it’s a nice coincidence to be able to welcome both the Wongs and the Yees to Portland stages this weekend. More specifically, that’s Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord, starring the titular performance artist, in Portland Center Stage’s Ellyn Bye Studio (co-produced with Boom Arts), and Lauren Yee’s play King of the Yees, staged by Profile Theatre at Imago.
Both plays bring smart comedic verve to issues of Chinese-American identity, among a host of other matters. And Yee’s play, which has the significance of language and lineages and names as one of its main story threads, even jokes about the prevalence of, well, Yees and Wongs. When the character called Lauren Yee, on a quest to find her lost father, encounters a character called the Model Ancestor, she’s told, “Girl, do you see this place? I got Yees up in my Yees. Might as well be a fucking Wong convention.”
Both plays also intentionally toss around stereotypes, deftly juggling them before they’re punctured by the prismatic light of ironic exposure. And both also feature bold and confident theatricality. Yee’s story starts as a play-within-a-play before morphing into a phantasmic Chinatown tour of self-discovery. Wong’s features a colorful scenic design full of outsized props that The New York Times said “feels heightened and hallucinatory … but also safe, like a child’s playroom.”
This is not, of course, to say that all Chinese plays look alike.
Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord chronicles her pandemic project, when, in 2020 and ‘21, she organized hundreds of people – many of them Asian-American women, including her own mother – to sew hundreds of thousands of face masks for vulnerable communities. In her website’s description, “Wong hilariously unpacks the American Dream, America’s pursuit of global empire at the cost of its citizens, and the significance of women of color performing a historically gendered and racialized invisible labor at a time of heightened anti-Asian racism in the U.S.”
“I’m interested in making art that responds to the current moment but doesn’t leave me angrier and more distraught than the world already does,” she says elsewhere on her site. “The persona of ‘Kristina Wong’ in my shows is the ‘know-it-all social justice warrior who tackles oppression with tactics that are simplistic in idealism and often self-serving. This naivete unfolds in hilarious blunders, forcing Kristina Wong towards more poignant investigation, and always, no easy resolution.”
You can also listen to Dmae Lo Roberts’ Stage & Studio podcast interview on ArtsWatch with Wong about Sweatshop Overlord.
King of the Yees begins with Lauren Yee (or perhaps that’s “Lauren Yee”) trying to rehearse a play, a two-hander about Chinatown, only to be interrupted by her father. His connections to, and idealization of, the Chinatown community leads to misunderstandings with his daughter and leads Lauren into strange adventures that become an exploration of generational divides, varieties of ethnic identity, the structures and functions of community, the power of story, and so on.
One of the many questions the show asks is what is the connection between our ethnic and personal identities. But don’t expect any lecturing or hectoring answer.
“I feel like the ideal name is white first name, white last name, but Asian middle name,” says one character. “So you can blend in when necessary, but you can also be like, ‘Ethnic minority, bitch!’ ”
In storytelling, it’s usually important to establish the stakes of a given situation. So what better setting for a play than an execution chamber – even if you’re writing a comedy?
Perhaps that’s part of the thinking behind Death by Hanging: A Comedy, by Craig McCarthy. Actually, the Portland improv actor has based his play on a 1968 Japanese film by Nagisa Oshima, an absurdist conceptual piece inspired in part by the 1958 case of an ethnic Korean who confessed to the murder of a pair of Japanese schoolgirls. That film examined issues of guilt and justice, racial discrimination and state-sponsored violence. And both Oshima’s film and McCarthy’s adaptation depict hangings and other abuse.
That may sound like a grim grounding for a fun time. But as a “content warning” on the play’s website states, “We are in no way intending to make light of such violence, but attempting to satirize a brutal State that would sanction this act as justice.” And director Rose Bonomo has some capable comic actors to work with here, including colleagues from the Elizabethan-style improv troupe Love, Shakespeare.
Third Rail Rep opens its 17th season with Blink, by playwright Phil Porter, about a pair of Londoners who help each other grapple with the grief that follows the death of their parents. The perceptive theater-maker Tamara Carroll directs.
Viva la Muerte, this year’s iteration of Milagro’s annual Day of the Dead show, ends its run Sunday afternoon. Sunday evening offers what we might think of as an alternate vision of the afterlife. A group of artists who previously were involved with Milagro will present two performances of a piece called [de]composition. And although we haven’t had a chance to talk with Milagro leaders, the new show apparently rises from a sharp dispute.
“On 10/04, our performers and the director all resigned in solidarity as a response to grave mistreatment by Milagro Theatre,” one of the artists said in an email. They’ll perform the devised Day of the Dead-inspired show they’d created – initially for Milagro – at Shaking the Tree. “As artists we believe our voices deserve to be heard and this is a ‘protest play’, meaning being a symbol of speaking up against injustice in the Portland artists community. We would like our community to remember that creatives have rights, as well as the power to make pieces that matter.”
Sorry to have to admit it, but your humble DramaWatcher hasn’t made it to Fucking A, Shaking the Tree’s production of the Suzan-Lori Parks’ dark fable about an abortionist seeking to redeem her imprisoned son. But it has been perhaps the most widely acclaimed show of the Portland theater season so far, continuing the fantastic track record of director Samantha Van Der Merwe.
Reading is fundamental
PassinArt’s series of staged readings continues with Zooman and the Sign, Charles Fuller’s Obie-winning play about a murder in the Black community of 1970s Philadelphia.
The flattened stage
The British actor turned stateside TV host James Corden has taken a reputational hit of late – some kerfuffle or other about rude behavior in a restaurant. But it’s nice to have readily available reminders of the talents that helped him become an overly entitled celebrity in the first place.
The best line I read this week
LINDSAY-ABAIRE: Look, I love my family very much. And they messed me up just enough for this play to be what it is. [Tesori pats Lindsay-Abaire’s arm, remarking, “Wow.”] I don’t feel messed up by them. But I feel messed up just enough to be the writer and be the person that I am.
TESORI: That’s what makes you a storyteller. Healthy enough to write, damaged enough to want to write.
– the playwright David Lindsay-Abaire and the composer Jeanine Tesori, in an interview with The New York Times about their musical Kimberly Akimbo.
That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.