On November 17th and 18th, the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA) hosted the internationally renowned performance Make Banana Cry (2023) as the finale of “Time-Released,” PICA’s extended late-summer and early fall programming that replaced the two-week Time-Based Art Festival (TBA) for 2023. Although the anticipatory build-up was an intentional part of the programming, this particular performance had been years in the making. Roya Amirsoleymani – PICA’s Artistic Director and Curator of Public Engagement for the past 12 years who announced her year-end departure from PICA on November 30 – was first introduced to the project in 2019 at the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery in England (they’ve also performed in Stockholm, Paris, and Montreal) and had planned to bring Andrew Tay, Stephen Thompson, and their collaborators to perform Make Banana Cry at TBA 2020. The global pandemic had other plans. Tay (one of the two creators alongside Thompson) wasn’t able to attend the 2023 performance, but Make Banana Cry was a fitting end to Time-Released.
For two nights, PICA’s warehouse turned into the imaginative world of Make Banana Cry, an installation and performance that includes a hybrid museum exhibit and performance. Vitrines designed by the visual artist Dominique Pétrin housed technicolor objects familiar to the diasporic Asian home. In the performance component, six performers (Hanako Hoshimi-Caines, Fran Chudnoff, Sehyoung Lee, Cynthia Koppe, Winnie Ho, and Stephen Thomspon) took to a fashion runway-style stage and dismantled aesthetic embodiments of Asian-ness derived from violent histories. The resulting parts, formed by exercising imaginative capacities, can be used to construct new identities, potentially even a new world.
The performers start with their identities obscured by winter attire, sheathed in knee-length coats, knit beanies, and scarves. procession starts in identity obscuring Winter attire. Over the course of the hour, they shed these layers in a thoughtful striptease of decoding. Around the runway in a feverish cycle, they pantomime Asian stereotypes against a backdrop of the whir of helicopter propellers and sound bites that stir discomfort as well as nostalgia. The soundtrack is drawn from songs like Turning Japanese (1980) by The Vapors, Tao of Love (1979) by Vangelis, and Miss Saigon (1989). Their props and costumes rotate between Comme des Garçons, plastic toys made in China, and take-out bags. The performance ends with naked bodies glistening with sweat and breathing heavily under increasingly brightening lights. The performers’ beauty and exhaustion is inescapable and undeniable.
The phrase from the title, “make banana cry,” references a specific story, one with the potential to make many American uncles of a certain age double-over at the dinner table. The story goes something like this: During the Vietnam War, the United States kept military bases in Hong Kong where GIs sought out the sexual services of local women in the humid languor. In any given exchange, it might start under the pretense of a massage. At some point the woman would provide a window to let the pretense drop by propositioning with a fruity euphemism:“You wanna make banana cry?” There’s an implied tawdry humor but for many, like myself and the performers of Make Banana Cry, this story instead elicits a naked bashfulness, a knowledge of how the specter of history falls over the curvatures of our Asian bodies.
Geographically fixed as this phrase is, sayings of a similar effect linger in the colonial afterlives of numerous Asian countries which are reflected in the heterogeneous backgrounds of the piece’s performers. For instance, in the Philippines, GI’s during World War II called the native women “Little Brown Fucking Machines Fueled by Rice.” Even today, if you search “L.B.F.M.F.R.” on Ebay you’ll find tourist ephemera decorated with the saying in acronym form, its salacious meaning obfuscated by capitalization and punctuation. This is how the colonial unconscious works, by pushing its violent histories into invisible margins where they continue to contour the present.
It is within those margins that Make Banana Cry occupies. In Neferti X. M. Tadiar’s book Remaindered Life (2022), she describes creative yet often illegible social practices that are generated in lives marginalized through processes of global capitalism. These practices of Remaindered Life are necessary for imagining new ways of living. While some representations acted out in the show (the jungle soldier) are more readily deciphered and contextualizable in geopolitical scenes, some others (the many iterations of cowboy and motorcyclist) bear little-to-no resemblance to Asian images I’ve seen or stories I’ve heard. It is in these illegible acts where I find the most exciting imaginative possibilities.
Props do heavy work to ground the performance. Among them are poop-emoji house-slippers, a claw grabber toy, rice paper, a clothing rack, and a plunger. What the props are used to act out, however, is highly contestable. At any given time, any of the objects mentioned above could be a stand-in for a gun, a ping-pong paddle, or a dog. Recalcitrant and unduly playful, the performance of Make Banana Cry models Remaindered Life by challenging the audience to question their individual relationships to Asian-ness. Is your relationship one of recognition, fetishization or castration?
The connections made between audience and the associated images produced in the performance surface questions of cultural appropriation, what’s appropriate and not or what’s irreducibly in the middle, but the stakes feel much higher than mere use or consumption. Those of us living in the global West, particularly in North America, are in a time of hyper-visibility for Asian representation. What does it mean that white people on Tik Tok are trying to change their race to East Asian at the same moment that South Asian life is made disposable through the uninterrupted continuation of colonial dynamics buttressed by global capitalism? Instead of providing a comforting answer, Make Banana Cry lingers in the question.
On the first night, arts writer and ArtsWatch contributor Jason N. Le moderated a panel discussion with the artists in which the audience asked about the role of ‘agency’ and ‘reclamation’ in the work. Evidenced by the frequency in which these terms appeared in both Le and the attendee’s questions, as well as the performer’s answers, it was clear that these themes were in the process of being worked out but the specific definitions remained elusive.
One of the performers, Hanako Hoshimi-Caines, explained in the discussion that she is able to “drop” the stereotypes the second she steps off the stage. Hoshimi-Caines continued that it wasn’t until she started this project that she realized her lack of agency, the ability to exert control over Asian stereotypes and how people project them onto you, out in the world. It’s tempting to say that the performers create or claim their agency when they embody different representations—some hypersexual, subservient, savage or downright silly—around the runway. Make Banana Cry certainly performs agency. In reality, the illusion of agency within the performance reveals that outside the performance’s frame it doesn’t exist or at least not in the same way.
Reclamation finds a similarly sticky presence. It’s hard to describe the playfulness so tangible in the moments where performer and audience member clash. Stephen Thompson wears a heart-eyes emoji mask and makes long strides to an audience member to deliver an imaginary bundle of flowers; Sehyoung Lee wears little more than a leather collar and lies on his belly underfoot someone in the audience while reading a book and flirting. These exchanges demand the word reclamation but at the same time, it feels too shortsighted. If the goal is only to reclaim or “take back” that implies a contentment with maintaining existing systems of representation with only minor attitudinal adjustments. Something much more capacious and complex is happening here.
The suspended illusion of agency in Make Banana Cry holds the familiar representations in a defamiliarizing container. Within the confines of the performance, the air surrounding these images enshrined in anthropological museums, on popular porn sites, and memory, isn’t stuffy or oppressive. It’s electrifying. Even the ickiest of embodiments (which for me was Cynthia Koppe acting as an infantilized adult who shivers and sucks their thumb while a fake penis pokes out from her red underwear) are offered in a way that eludes easy interpretation or reproduction.
Comparing the two nights of the performance, some anchoring props and embodiments stayed the same, but much was subject to change based on how the performers were feeling. This variability is deliberate: There is no one answer to what it all means, especially when the person sitting a row behind me may read nothing from a particular character in which I recognize it immediately. It is my mother, my grandmother, the old lady at my bus stop; it is me.
The closest thing to an answer we’re allowed is written on a placard fixed to one of Pétrin’s vitrines, one of several displays that the attendees could observe before and after the performance. Inside this particular case are porcelain figures engaged in a dance and their ghostly image doubles in the four panes of glass. The placard is labeled Afterlife. One line of the description reads, “The material girl world, body as cage or temple.” The placard text later defines ‘ritual’ as a process of identity formation where ideologies and paradigms too can change. Through ritual, the body which is a cage is also a temple.
This duality recalls the project of Tadiar’s remaindered life where the social practices that are forged in the disparate margins of our history and present are the same ones capable of imagining a new life for us all. Throughout Make Banana Cry, the performers endeavor through movement and objects to recall in the imaginations of the audience scenes from a familiar world. In this exercise of imaginative capacities, they are preparing us to envision a better world, one that doesn’t exist yet. In this world, the stereotypes of our past and present are not embraced or rejected. Rather, we have engaged them with great curiosity and have withstood our own discomfort in their presence to appreciate them as our teachers. It is from this meaningful–and yes, playful–consideration of these representations that we can imagine a future beyond the systems that created them.