Saturday, February 25, 2012

Asian-American Laughter

[Jessica Hagedorn] “wanted to explore what humor was and how it related to racism.  For Hagedorn, ‘humor has to be tied with truth’: ‘[Truth] is what makes you laugh because it hurts…Humor is about telling the truth.’” (121)
“Hwang knew how to let mainstream audiences laugh at Asian American topics: ‘One of the things I found very early on at the [Public Theater] was that with predominantly non-Asian audience, you had to give them the permission to laugh because they weren’t sure whether or not they were being offensive by laughing, and so after The New York Times came out and said that it was funny, then everyone thought it was OK to laugh.’” (134)
There were a few things I found particularly interesting in reading this book.  First was the preponderance of women who were at the forefront of the Asian-American theatre movement.  Jessica Hagedorn, Joanna Wan-Ying Chan, Roberta Uno, Nobuko Mitamato and many others were among the most exciting, active and incendiary people in the history of this group about which we generally know so little.  If we tend to be ignorant of Asian American theatre in general, then we are certainly ignorant of the specific role women have played within it. 
I also took note of the many mentions of humor within this book.  The quotes cited above make note of the ways Asian-American artists were able to use humor to test and even blast beyond boundaries, inviting or dragging people into their world.  This appropriation of humor is important for these artists, since the roots of Asian and Asian-American characters in American theatre were also often comical, but in those days they were the butt of the joke.  They were the geishas, the drunks, the fools, the criminals, and they were to be feared, laughed at, or both.  So it’s interesting to see the ways in which they changed the discourse, took control of the laughter, and made it into something that could propel them into the mainstream.  Hwang’s understanding of the intricacies of letting the audience in on the joke is the very reason he became the pioneer he did.  He worked within the rules of the mainstream to open doors into the world of the Asian-American experience, humanizing it and allowing audiences of all stripes to find the kind of connections and parallels with their own lives that are the bedrock of so much comedy.  He was, in a sense, “using the master’s tools” to dig out a place for the Asian-American voice in the American theatre context.
And while Hwang was digging with fairly delicate tools, it sounds like Hagerdon may have been working with dynamite.  I have to admit, I love that Hagedorn was so known for her particularly in-your-face brand of humor.  Seeing a woman challenge society in such a straightforward, unabashed way is often (not to be trite) empowering to me.  She reached out across racial and societal barriers to point out the injustice and absurdity of stereotypes and judgments, and she did it in a way that refused to go unnoticed.  I’m not a proponent of shock for the sake of shock, or coarseness for the sake of coarseness, but when humor and extremity are applied in a carefully thought out, intelligently crafted, intentional manner with a social purpose, I can really dig it!  And the fact that she was playing with Samuel L. Jackson… well… that’s just bonus cool points, let’s be honest.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Remembering and Reenacting Trauma

As she discusses Ralli’s performance of Ant√≠gona, Taylor points out how Ralli was able to use embodied symbols to connect lived  memory to the dramatic memory of the story of Antigone: “In the performance, she included the gestures she associated with the women as a way of signaling the continuity of cultural gestures and behaviors.” (207-208)  This immediately brought to mind an amazing project called Dark Elegy(  Dark Elegy is a sculpture garden by a woman named Suse Lowenstein that commemorates the attack on Pan Am 103 on Dec. 21, 1988.  The plane was coming from Heathrow bound for JFK, and was destroyed by a bomb over the town of Lockerbie, Scotland.  Until September 11, 2001, this was the largest foreign attack on American civilians.  Lowenstein’s 21-year-old son was one of the victims.  In order to cope with her grief, she sculpted herself at the moment when she received the news, and then began sculpting other women connected to other passengers.  Each sculpture is a frozen gesture, an encapsulation of the trauma of the moment captured in stone.  This sculpture project later inspired playwright Deborah Brevoort to write the play The Women of Lockerbie, based on the event.  I found a strong connection in this play both to the gestural nature of embodied memory in Taylor’s repertoire, but also in her discussion of her experience of September 11.  The layers of performance involved in capturing that trauma – from memory, to sculpture to play – marry the repertoire and the archive in an interesting way.  There is a moment in the play when Madeline, the grieving mother of a 21-year-old son lost in the attack, recounts the moment when she heard about the explosion:
                I was in the kitchen.
                I was baking a pie for Adam.
                A pumpkin pie, to welcome him home.
                The TV was on.
                I listen to it when I’m cooking…
                I sprinkle flour on the counter
                and roll out the pie dough.
                I roll it once in each direction.
                Like this…
                (She rolls)
                The way my mother taught me.
                And then
                Ted Koppel comes on the air.
                I know immediately that something is wrong.
                You only hear Ted Koppel’s voice at night
                never in the day.
                He said:
                “We interrupt this program…
                Pan Am 103 was last seen in a fireball over Scotland.”
                I double over.
                I sink onto the kitchen counter.
                My face presses into the pie dough.
                It is cold on my nose and cheek.
                I cannot stand up.
                I grope the counter
                for something to hold on to.
                My arm hits the flour bin.
                It crashes to the floor.
                My feet are covered with flour.
                I reach for the handle
                on the refrigerator.
                I pull myself up.
                And there
                in front of me
                is a note
                held by a magnet
                that says
                “Adam. 7pm. JFK. Pan Am 103.”
                I live in New Jersey!
                I have two cars in the driveway!
                This was not supposed to happen to me!

She relives the private moment of her trauma in a detailed and physical way, making of herself a perpetual statue.  As we put that performance of grief into statue and scripted form, it becomes a part of the archive, but since the memory is inherently housed in gesture, it remains actively in the repertoire as well. 
There is something so inherently visceral about the way we process extreme trauma like Pan Am 103, the Dirty War or September 11 that the archive doesn’t seem quite enough to hold these memories.  In many cases, we the survivors are the only physical remains left to testify to the event.  While Diana’s body was there to be paraded through London, many of the bodies could not be recovered from Pan Am or the World Trade Center, and certainly most of the desaparecidos were never retrieved.  In the absence of that kind of archival finality, we are left to rely on the memory that has taken root in the bones of the witnesses.  And we really are all witnesses.  Whether we were in New York or thousands of miles away, we were all witnesses to the events of September 11.  Even though the women represented in Dark Elegywere not in Scotland watching the plane fall, they are witnesses.  As Taylor points out in chapter 9, there is more to the record than the officially sanctioned photos (archive).  The moment of trauma is burned on the body and the mind and the way in which that trauma is relived and re-felt and retold requires a distinctly performative approach to history and memory.
As of 2008, Suse Lowenstein had sculpted 76 women connected with Pan Am 103.  In each piece, the last thing she adds is a small personal trinket or remembrance that she places just behind the heart – which seems to me a sort of perfect illustration of the marriage of the archive and the repertoire.  There is a personal element to the memory recorded in this sculpted archive that we may never see, but that embodied element is what completes it.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Watch Your Language

“Vietnamese or even Chinese written language systems are reduced to mysterious aesthetics, without power to signify anything beyond the graphically representational to non-Vietnamese-reading audiences.” (35)

Language is a powerful tool for constructing meaning in our world, so when we rob language of its denotative and connotative meaning, we deconstruct – or possibly destroy – the world it has built.  The quote above is specifically referencing the Miss Saigon poster which appropriates the style of Asian calligraphy in representing a helicopter – the big effect with which the show is almost synonymous, but it has much farther reaching implications in a postcolonial sense. By turning the language of the other into mere aesthetic scribbling, there is a denial of the power of the Asian language to create its own meaning, to construct its own world.  The west sits in its position of privilege, assuming the white, middle-class, English speaking, Euro-American male as the basis against which the rest of the world should be reflected and ultimately judged.  The other or subaltern or subjugated is undervalued and robbed of agency.  Of course, it is not only in the overly commercialized Miss Saigons of the world that paint an unflattering and overly Anglo-centric version of interaction with an Eastern culture.  Even the most noble enterprises, however, when approaching a culture from the outside, have an added responsibility to examine the cultural assumptions that are being tossed around.  Shimakawa points out Miss Saigon’s stereotypical conflation of all things Asian into a non-American, non-masculine, non-subject soup of yellow skin and sexual submission.  But problems arise in these sorts of criticisms.  Is the negative portrayal of the other intentional?  Does intent matter?  Does the oversimplification of the culture of the other mask or illuminate root causes of oppression, subjugation or hardship?  When we appropriate language and culture into our own context, what does it lose?  What does ours lose?  What does either gain?  How can we even tell?  We like to believe that there are absolutes governing our little planet and the ways in which we interact, but the truth is (and this is no great shock to those coming off a few weeks of semiotics and post-structuralism), language ends up being the most effective way of shaping those delicate networks, and when we dismiss or ignore its power to create, this might be the moment when it has the most potential to pervert and destroy. 

An odd little sidebar from my marketing days: we were trying to come up with a name and logo for a beer made by one of our clients.  It was a 15th anniversary bock, so we circled around the German Funfzehn Bock as a possibility.  This, at some point, morphed into Fun Zen Bock, which ended up being what the client chose, and the logo became a fat, happy little Buddha.  Along the way, one of the designers raised a question: is it offensive to use someone’s religious icon as a logo for a beer?  The other designer shrugged and replied, “but it’s a false idol.”  Designer one tried again: “yes, to you it’s a false idol, but to someone else it’s a central figure of their religion.”  Designer two stared blankly, “But it’s not a true religion.”  This was clearly a losing battle, and Fun Zen Bock was launched upon a fairly clueless 3-Southern-state audience.  Since there aren’t really a lot of Buddhists in South Carolina, and probably even fewer who would be eating at a steak house, no objections arose.  But the questions that arose during the process (of which I was not a direct part, by the way) bubbled up as I read this section.  Just because I don’t understand the importance of the cultural artifact being appropriated, that doesn’t mean that it has no importance.

To take a little theory jump, it would seem fair to say that the abject is generally without a language of its own.  Indeed the object would never allow the abject the kind of agency it takes to be master of its own language.  But “The abject, it is important to note, does not achieve a (stable) status of object – the term often used to describe the position of (racially or sexually) disenfranchised groups in analyses of the politics of representation.” (3)  Even the exclusion experienced by the abjected at the hands of the deject (I think I got that jargon right… maybe) is structured and described by the hegemony, and as the abject evolves, so too do the methods of abjection.  There is often investment – conscious or not – in maintaining that good ol’ status quo.  So the Asian body becomes something that can be removed from polite society (Kristeva discusses the abject in terms of the female body… so it would be necessary to remember that the abjection of the Asian female body would be an entirely different breed of expulsion – and that intersectionality demands a whole other level of sensitivity in treatment of the other by the privileged artist or viewer or critic), leaving behind only the tidy and evolved Western world. 

Of course, perhaps Shimakawa is overreacting.  Perhaps it is too easy to read too much into a lovely marketing image.  After all, aestheticizing language is not an essentially bad practice.  Certainly playwrights do it every day.  And even removing meaning from that language, if done with thought and intention, is something that we can find useful and meaningful.  Talk to Samuel Beckett for a few thoughts on that practice.  But when the language of the other is made into something that is merely aesthetic for the purpose not only of serving the subject, but of serving the subject in an unfavorable portrayal of the other, there is something to look at.  We abject the other by robbing them of the power of language, substituting the language of the colonizer or the hegemony or the west – whatever you want to call it – as a universal expression of humanity.  But the universal is difficult to achieve even in seemingly monolithic cultures… even when we’re genuinely seeking it.  As I said, language is a powerful tool for constructing meaning… 

Monday, February 6, 2012

Ramblings on Roach

“Across the transnational groupings and reinvented affiliations of such an oceanic inter-cultural but within the stubborn eloquence of the intersecting diasporic memories performed within its distinctive urban vortices, the precise location of the New World is no longer clear.” (286)

Roach’s book examines a history of transformation and travel, of appropriation and reclaiming of identity.  The strong postcolonial streak in his writing examines the way memories are preserved and the narratives that this preservation is in service of.  Songs are heard, uprooted, and planted in a new context that serves the hegemony in some completely different way.  Icons are reassigned and their original meaning all but forgotten.  Even the human body itself is employed in ways that the individual might never have anticipated.  Looking at the pageantry of the Betterton funeral alongside the pageantry of the slave trade, there is a stark contrast in the meaning of the respective human effigies.  Betterton comes to represent a certain level of culture and artistic refinement – reanimating a living effigy out of a dead body and making it into an instrument of expression around which a community could continue to gather.  In life, as an actor, he was already a living symbol.  (The discussion of the life or death struggle between the actor and the audience was particularly amusing.  As we ‘knock ‘em dead’ or ‘die out there’ for all to see, there is an exaggeration to the liminality of the theatre act that brings added life to the risk an actor submits him/herself to with each performance.  Theatre transforms the actor into something more – an inherently semiotic entity that takes on a meaning beyond the individual.  And according to Roach’s observations, the power of that performance can live long after the passing of the physical actor.  Actors are replaced by their own legends.)  While theatre and the funeral of a theatre icon create a sort of hyper humanity, his account of the slave markets illustrates a use of performance to diminish humanity.  Dressing up the “auction items” in attractive clothes (just like Betterton and his fellow actors) only to strip them and humiliate them.  They dance and smile and perform in a way that, to an outside observer, might seem quite similar to the theatre of Betterton and his peers.  But the community that arises out of each is painfully different.  As Roach digs through the myriad performances in this group, over and over again we see images of people and populations whose identities are not their own.  But from the point of the hegemony, it is all too easy to forget that these people and traditions have their own history distinct from the popular narrative.  My grandfather used to sing all sorts of old songs.  Some were harmless old sea chanties, and some were negro spirituals complete with “dems” and other well-known colloquialisms.  My mother was mortified when, at the age of 4 or 5, I related the story of the tar baby to my best friend across the street, who was black.  In some senses there can be an innocence to the lack of recognition of an artifact’s history.  Certainly, I just thought these songs and stories came from my grandfather.  I never gave a thought to any lengthy origin story.  But as ignorance implants these appropriated pieces of identity deeper and deeper into the culture of the colonizer, it becomes harder and harder to locate real roots.  “Great discoveries” built on the backs of conquered and subjugated populations rarely recognize the debt they owe.  But when we attempt to untangle these webs of influence that stretch back and forth across the nation and across the Atlantic (in Roach’s examples), we encounter complex stories of give and take that then demand that we rethink our assignment of “new” and “first” and “primary.”  It becomes a huge, historical game of six degrees of Kevin Bacon