Convergences are what make TBA. Perhaps it is just the result of seeing this concentration of stellar avant-garde performances in such a short window of time, but I always have this sense of déjà vécu that unifies the entire week of experiences. The eleven days blend into this sublimely exhausting web of conversations and concepts and visual stimuli that beg to be examined. It could just be that a lack of sleep puts me in the mindset to read too much into the similarities, but I love feeling like I’ve discovered these hidden intentions behind PICA’s festival curation. Quickly thinking back over what I have seen, a handful of such confluences easily come to mind. Going from Sell Out to Disinformation, I looked at Watts’ commercial breaks and sponsor acknowledgments a little differently than I otherwise would have. In reading about Eckert’s past work, I learned he had helped create a piece based on the lost yachtsman David Crowhurst. Days later, I saw that name appear again in Ryan Wilson Paulsen’s installation on exploration and searching. And hearing the mechanical/factory score of Donna Uchizono’s State of Heads put me in the right mood to appreciate Amy O’Neal’s beat-box narrated dance with Reggie Watts.
But out of all the myriad themes I found running through the performances, there is one that I just keep returning to – the transparency of the stage. It is easy to get lost in the dream-state of the festival, but I feel like this year, the PICA staff selected shows that would never let the audience forget that it is all an illusion. I think back to Kassys or the Nature Theatre, both of which bombarded the viewers with self-referential asides, only to trick the audience into believing the entire charade. From what I have heard of Wampler, she has accomplished much the same thing in her latest work. So with this, I was thrilled to find that Young Jean Lee, a remarkably sharp and hard-to-characterize writer, continued apace with Songs of the Dragon Flying to Heaven.
The piece opens by plunging the audience into unexpected darkness. As your eyes adjust, there are no visuals, only a recording in which you hear Lee and two men making a video. They discuss the action that they are about to film – it seems to involve a slap across Lee’s face – debating the intensity with which they should perform the hit. Then you hear it. It makes you cringe, but you haven’t seen a thing. The voices dissect it and they try again. The audience flinches just as strongly. The slapping continues, interrupted only occasionally by stage directions to Lee (“Chin up. Debutante.”), for an uncomfortably long time. I kept reminding myself that it is a play and that Lee is the one in charge and that I still haven’t even seen the violence. For all I knew, they could be mimicking the sound like a foley artist, laughing that the audience imagined each crack as a real slap. But just when I felt assured that this was the joke, the video comes on and Lee stares directly at the audience, tears running down her face, sniffling. She is slapped again and every frame that would have shown the hand is cut out. There are tears and a struggle for composure, the sound of the slap, and then Lee’s face rebounding from the impact. Every time that you feel like you’ve caught on to the gimmick of the performance, Lee changes the rules. She reminds you that this is just a play and then she slips in a question mark. This video sets the tenor for the entire performance.
Featuring a young woman named Korean American who delivers all of her caustic lines with a wide-eyed wonderment, Songs of the Dragon is wildly offensive in the vein of a race-baiting stand-up comic. But Lee is not that facile of a writer to merely write the kind of play you would expect with characters named Koreans 1, 2, and 3. Just like Lee kept restating the terms of her introductory video piece, every line of dialogue is contradicted or revised until you can’t keep up with what her intention is. Every laugh comes at a price. From the opening monologue in which Korean American delivers a knowing lampoon of Asian stereotypes to her later interactions with the Koreans, each sequence of jokes ends with a reminder that the audience isn’t in on the joke. At first you think the joke is the one-liner. Gradually, you realize that Lee is highlighting your ignorance every time you laugh and that this is the joke. But wait, she reminds you, “You have no idea what the fuck we’re up to.” Through the whole show, Lee deliberately frustrates understanding by juxtaposing squeaky clean pop songs with sadistic pantomime or by leaving large passages of dialogue in Korean.
To complete this exclusion of the audience, Lee intersperses the action between Korean American and the three Koreans with a straight-faced relationship drama between White Person 1 and White Person 2. They are the stand-ins for the audience and they are every bit removed from the action as you are. While Korean American battles with white culture and her Asian heritage, all that the White People can muster is a shallow and incredibly self-indulgent examination of their sex-life, their appearances, and their roller-ball pens. At most points, they only enter the scene once the Korean characters have left. When their time on stage does overlap, everything is lost in translation – the Koreans sing and dance in their own vernacular, while the White People try to follow along in the spirit of cultural sensitivity, but ignorant of the meaning of what they are doing. They are as lost in this culture as the audience was when waiting in line, surrounded by caricatured “Asian” art, paper lanterns and a stone pathway upon which we hesitantly walked, only after being instructed to do so.
You think you get it, the whole point of the play. The audience reveals their racism by whole-heartedly laughing along with the absurdly bigoted jokes. White Person 1 and White Person 2 are clearly racist because of their self-absorbed obliviousness. Even Korean American is just as racist towards the Koreans as she believes that the audience is towards her. Yet Lee isn’t writing a morality play about the universality of bigotry. In the midst of another trivial scene between White Persons 1 and 2, Lee deploys her four Asian women to speak on her behalf. Delivering their lines in unison, Lee directly rips apart everything she has done the entire show and how clever and edgy she believed herself to be. Sounding like a “Pledge of Allegiance to My White Cultural Patrons,” the four women explain that Lee is no racial provocateur. Rather, she is just reinforcing stereotypes and mollifying your guilt. And if these last few minutes have been too political, they reassure, Lee will just cut them because your comfort is all that matters. So with that, let’s just return to the relationship problems of a white couple, shall we?
Lee wrote a comedy, changed it to an admonishing sermon, rewrote parts to make it a confessional piece, went back to the comedy, deconstructed it down to a political statement, then decided to scrap the whole thing and write a straight romance. Each time you think you’ve pinned it down and know what you’re watching, Lee changes genres. I’m still not sure if I got Lee’s joke or if I was just the butt of it.
posted by patrick l.