(Editor’s note: All of the quotes are taken from Undesirable Elements by Ping Chong, now available from TCG Books.)
Something clicked for me with theatre, in my senior year of high school. I finally took a dramatic literature class, where we brazenly tackled most of Shakespeare’s heavy hitters, then took a swipe at American classics like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Long Day’s Journey Into Night. In my graduating class, there were more than six hundred students, yet by the time I had reached my senior year, I felt like I had a real sense of the student body. I could see the boxes students fit into (or didn’t), I knew how I fit, and I knew where and who I could have been, had I chosen different paths.
All of this neat and orderly categorization was completely dismantled by Mr. Bierman’s senior Shakespeare class. Bierman was legendary on campus for pushing students where they weren’t sure how to go. In our class, this methodology took a personal turn. Discussions of these essential pieces of dramatic literature spun us into something like group therapy. One peer talked about how she had been physically abused by her father, and her mother’s long struggle with cancer. Another had seen her mother submit herself to a succession of abusive relationships, with seedy and brutal men. Another talked about her brother’s drug and alcohol abuse, and his trips in and out of jail. Another spoke about growing up in foster care, and how she was getting married that summer. These were girls whom I had thought I knew fairly well, and I was shocked by how wrong I was. Shared in the intimacy of a twelve person class, these personal stories changed how we were able to relate to one another. People felt more comfortable voicing their thoughts and questions in class. We were more sensitive and perceptive in our commentaries. And when it came time to produce our end of the year show as a class, we were speaking the same language.
If this were a performance in Ping Chong’s Undesirable Elements Series, we would now (All clap.). Ping Chong, a visionary performance artist who has spent his career developing his individual style of theatrical presentation of oral history, knows how to spin these human stories into raw theater. Alisa Solomon, who writes the introduction to his latest book, Undesirable Elements, says, “Theater, like America, is a space of self-making…The performers—who are not professional actors—live in the community where they are performing and, most important, they are telling their own stories.”
Ping Chong is not the only contemporary theatre artist to play with the possibilities of documentary theatre. The Civilians have a similar methodology of collecting stories through interviews and transforming them into a cohesive narrative or a collection of monologues, dealing with specific topics such as the Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn, as well as more general thematic pieces, addressing thoughts like “home” and “family.” Epic Theatre Ensemble’s 2012 production of “Dispatches from (A)mended America” similarly compiles real people’s words into representative characters, telling revealing stories about experiences with and attitudes towards race and racism in this country. Additionally, for years, the Neo-Futurists have been in pursuit of a similar honesty of story-telling in their work, by insisting that their company members are performers, not actors. They write in their statement of purpose, “Embracing a form of non-illusory theater in order to present our lives and ideas as directly as possible. All of our plays are set on the stage in front of the audience. All of our characters are ourselves. All of our stories really happened. All of our tasks are actual challenges. We do not aim to ‘suspend the audience’s disbelief,’ but to create a world where the stage is a continuation of daily life.” However, although Ping Chong’s work fits into a genre of contemporary American theatre, that does not make it any less unique. He purposefully, methodically, shines his light on stories that most often go unheard. Solomon writes, “[Chong] quickly learned that being an outsider, difficult as it was at times, afforded him a kind of double vision that was valuable to him as an artist.” (All clap twice.) Thus, Undesirable Elements was born.
Although Undesirable Elements has voiced numerous stories over the years, since each performance is community-specific, and thereby a different collection, Chong always follows a similar format in constructing his shows. Each show begins with a naming ritual. Chong explains, “The act of naming began the show and it always begins the show. In fact, the whole show is the act of naming, claiming one’s identity. It’s also very much about storytelling, the earliest, elemental form of theater.” Performers interweave their languages and their stories into one fluid narrative, reading from a script to tell their own and one another’s stories, and punctuating their words with choreographed movements, claps, songs, and repeated phrases, such as “If [something] had not happened, I would not be here today.” This is self-conscious storytelling that benefits from its specifically devised structure. Solomon writes, “[Chong] makes a lovely structure by virtue of which those stories can be told together, and then he gently steps out of the way.”
Chong frames his initial interviews with participants in the same way every time. Sara Zatz, the Associate Directory of Ping Chong + Company, and the Project Director of the Undesirable Elements series, says his typical questions include, “‘Where were you born?’ and ‘How did your parents meet?’ Cultural holidays. He always asked people for six names from their culture or a poem or a song.” Thereby, the stories collected inevitably share certain themes from their common basis in humanity, and provide an overlapping pool from which Chong can fish out the group’s performance.
Indeed, instead of giving his performers a mask, Chong is taking one away. He says, “The work is both an affirmation of difference and about the consequences of difference. Cause and effect.” He reveals individuals in their own terms, and asks the audience to listen with respect. He probes the question of what it means to be an American, asking who is cast into the “Other” category, and why? What does America mean to you? Do people here see you how you see yourself? Who would you be elsewhere? Chong says, “As time goes by, I find my role to be more about giving voice to others whose voices are not heard in our community.”
One might claim that Chong’s work isn’t really theatre, because there are no costumes or fictitious characters and that, rather, it is a form of oral history. Oral history attempts to create a more democratic recounting of history through the recording of stories that are usually neither told nor heard, in an official sense. It targets the “Other,” looking for their personal perspective on larger historical events. I would argue that although Chong’s methodology certainly resembles that of oral history’s, there is no denying the artfulness and theatricality of his finished product. Theatre is storytelling, after all, isn’t it? And who’s to say those stories shouldn’t come from people’s real lives, in our attempt to scratch ever-closer at some sort of truth?
In telling those stories, Chong takes uncommon liberty with language. He plays with its power both as a tool of inclusion and exclusion. By layering numerous languages into most of his pieces, sometimes with translation, sometimes without, he alternately embraces and alienates his audience. In describing the creation of Undesirable Elements, what he defines as, “a seated opera for the spoken word,” he says, “I wondered that night whether it was possible to make a work using multiple languages, testifying to the history of lives lived an the phenomena of culture itself.” The verdict? (All clap.) It was.
By sharing specific memories through images and instances, Chong illuminates the audience’s imagination. He employs word association tactics throughout his scripts, asking performers to describe places using sensory images. In this way, he challenges assumptions about far-flung places and foreign experiences by filling in specific cultural details of visual memory and personal experience. One such series, from his UE 92/06 performance, reads, “What do you think of when I say the word ‘Iran’?” “I think of fesunjun,” “a chicken dish made with crushed walnuts and pomegranates.” “The saltiest pistachios and the sweetest apricots. Salt on watermelons and lettuce dipped in honey. Rose petal jam, rose ice cream, rose water by the sink for hands. Persian poetry and the music of the ney,” “a flute blown from between your upper lip and teeth.” “Sucking strong tea through a cube of sugar held in my mouth until it disintegrates. I think of my father singing in the shower, sounding like the call to prayer.” With sequences like this one, Undesirable Elements uses the age-old tactic of breeding understanding and compassion through exposure. As one of the performers says in Inside/Out, an Undesirable Elements piece telling the stories of disabled people, “Art is a language that anyone can understand.” Chong uses this shared understanding to transform these stories of “Others” into just another story of shared human experience; he stokes audience full of desire for those they may not have felt capable of understanding, much less desiring (as hard as that is to admit), when they walked into the theatre that evening.
Another performer in Inside/Out shares, “I feel like people are so caught up in terminology and political correctness that we are forgetting to talk about the real issues.” Chong takes the opposite approach. (All clap ten times.) Talvin Wilks, a collaborator, says, “Undesirable Elements provides a fuller human story that you never would have had access to otherwise. The way that multiple voices are heard breaks through prejudices. That’s what I love so much about this piece, its ability to change the conversation. I’ve seen it every time in every place we’ve done the show.” Indeed, the power of the performance lies in the relationship with the audience. As validating as it is for the performers to have their stories immortalized in this context, the true impact depends upon the audience. Leyla Modirzadeh, a collaborator and performer, explains, “The show is so cathartic for the community. In the safety of a darkened theater you can let yourself think about things that are usually too charged. You can really have a moment of feeling and understanding… Everyone has histories and love and loss and issues with their parents. The show really humanizes everybody.” Hearing the performers’ stories kindles memories of your own experiences. Timothy Bond, a Commissioner and Producing Partner, agrees, “That’s what all great theater does. Ultimately it’s all about our humanity. It overcomes all the politics and religion and other divisive issues and biases that separate us.” Chong’s theatre facilitates accessibility of understanding and ultimately, openness to social change using this newly developed compassion.
To return to my friends in Bierman’s class, one of our closest moments came in writing scenes about our family’s life. As we were still in high school, living at home (for the most part), our family still provided our immediate immersive experience and identity. Being asked to write about our family members with a certain measure of objectivity did wonders for our perspective. At last, not only were we able to deepen our understanding of one another, but of ourselves, as well. Watching our own scenes performed by our classmates, hearing our family members’ voices spoken by others, we learned to value the influence of personal experience in shaping our evanescent identities. What had been internalized became obvious: “If [something] had not happened, I wouldn’t be here now.”
Frances Kao, a Commissioner and Producing Partner from Seattle Repertory Theatre, shares a similar story from a student audience at her theatre. “One of the students, Evin, was our youngest in the group. One of the student matinees was a sold-out show to his high school. He’s a pretty popular kid. It was striking to see, in the talk-back after the show: people saying, ‘I didn’t know that about you.’ It was something to hear: that people who had known him for a long time, kids who, for all intents and purposes, see themselves as Evin’s closest friends, didn’t know what he’d been through.” Theatre has the power to expose, to explain, and to illuminate. (All clap.)
Illuminate like the moon, as a reflection of the sun, beaming raw nightlight back at our upturned faces. Chong describes the scenic design of the original production: “The visual of a full moon and a half moon; the half moon shape of the seating. The audience is the other half of that moon. The full moon image functions in many ways. It’s a metaphor for what we aspire to: wholeness.” Chong puts storytelling to the service of humanity by uniting the tellers with the listeners in the safety of the theatre.
On Halloween this year, I observed the moon through a telescope, and the details – craters and mountains, shadows and textures – were the clearest along the terminator, the border between the dark and light parts. If Bierman and Chong have taught me anything, it’s this. Only by opening your eyes wide at that reflection, examining the border, only then, in examining the moon’s reflection, can we truly see the light. (All clap.)
Amelia Parenteau is a senior at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, where she studies literature, writing, theatre, and French. She is also currently the Communications and Conferences Intern for Theatre Communications Group. At Sarah Lawrence, she is the co-producer for her student theatre company, The Melancholy Players, a member of a women’s Shakespeare ensemble, and a senior interviewer for the Admissions Office.