KIMCHEE AND CHITLINS
Victory Gardens Studio Theater
at the Folio Theatre Company
“Facts,” says Suzie Seeto, investigative television-news reporter. “Facts illuminate the truth. And the truth will set you free–right? Isn’t that the way it works?” Elizabeth Wong’s Kimchee and Chitlins presents plenty of facts, but fact-finding is not discovery, and neither in itself constitutes a play.
When Seeto first arrives on the scene of what appears to be a racial disturbance, the one thing the witnesses can agree on is that Matilda Duvet entered the grocery store of Key Chun Mak, the only Korean shopkeeper in Harlem, to buy some fruit. While there, she either threw a tantrum when a clerk failed to understand her heavy Haitian accent and proceeded to pelt the hapless employees with produce before fainting, or she was assaulted by the owner after refusing to surrender her shopping bag to be inspected for stolen items. Whatever happened, she refuses to discuss it with anyone, and the concerned citizens of the community call for a boycott of the store.
It soon becomes apparent that Matilda Duvet is the least of their concerns. Reverend Lonnie Carter waxes eloquent over the significance of the event in the never-ending quest for justice. Mak’s nephew, Willie, reads his Bible and buys a gun (but no bullets). Nurse Ruth Betty says, “This is a grass-roots movement” several times. Barber James Brown (“no relation”) recalls that Mak was a regular customer. Mak recalls that Brown frequently patronized his shop. A Vietnamese boy is savagely beaten by three black youths. Mak files for an injunction to stop the protesters, and a judge rules in his favor. The rhetoric escalates. Everybody–including a Puerto Rican waitress and a Pakistani newspaper vendor–is asked his or her opinion on these matters, and everybody has an opinion while the television cameras are rolling. Ruth Betty refuses to use her surname because it’s a slave name. Mak’s niece, Soomi, is embarrassed by her uncle’s having an American mistress. Mak and Brown see their tenuous friendship torn apart. Everybody has his or her own troubles. Everybody claims to want respect. Everybody calls everybody else nasty names. Everybody toadies up to the media. Seeto wishes everybody would stop calling her “Suzie Wong,” after the golden-hearted prostitute in the 1960 movie. Her boss exults over the fact that somebody other than Caucasians have been the source of the trouble.
If this sounds familiar, it’s probably because we’ve seen it all on the news in the last year or so. Wong attempts to elevate this montage of sound bites by incorporating devices borrowed from Brecht–a chorus announces the events of a scene before it’s played, and at another point the action is interrupted while the cast does a conga to the calypso tune “Matilda (She Take My Money).” There’s even a double ending, a la The Threepenny Opera: after Mak has sorrowfully closed his store and left the neighborhood, a chorus abruptly announces: “The playwright thinks that reality is very depressing. She would like to offer a more cheerful solution.” In the next scene Mak and Brown are reunited, each vowing to put aside their differences and discover their similarities as bachelor businessmen. If Mak and Brown had been presented as two whole human beings, this scenario might have come across as realistic–but Wong sees them only as demographic representatives, and Seeto concludes that “the best stories are invented” (ignoring the fact that this production has a multiracial cast performing before a multiracial audience).
No dialect coach is credited–remarkable since the chief humor comes from the accents employed by the eight-member cast playing some 25 roles, with sly satire arising from each ethnic group’s attempts to mimic the others. Also cute, if unoriginal, is a sequence in which Seeto edits her videotapes and the actors play the action to indicate rewinds and fast-forwards. But the choral speeches tend to be merely disruptive, as are the cartoonish jibes at the cliches of TV news. Amy Ludwig’s direction is clean and competent, Rob Martin’s set functional and flexible, and the cast do their best to give their one-dimensional characters some semblance of personality: Lisa Tejero makes a suitably ingenuous Seeto, the always-charming Marc Rita lends dignity to Grocer Mak, as does Mark Townsend to Barber Brown, and John Carter Brown plays assorted authority figures with poker-faced seriousness.
A former news reporter in Los Angeles, Wong is no stranger to her material, but by trying to say everything for everybody she winds up saying nothing at all. Certainly there’s a need for more plays employing nonwhite actors, but that can’t justify pulling a script out of the oven before it’s done. The result may be a dish as messy as–well, kimchee and chitlins.
Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman was a shocker in 1964; in this spare little one-act a young, educated middle-class black man is seduced, humiliated, and eventually murdered by a sluttish white woman before a crowd of passive witnesses on a subway. But three decades later Baraka’s allegory seems a trifle naive about personal relations. And directors are reluctant to grapple with the issues–male versus female, intellectual versus sensual, white-collar versus underclass, youth versus maturity–that must be addressed if one is to discuss social inequality. So the play is infrequently produced these days–except by drama students, who rediscover it annually.
In an attempt to dress up an old play in new clothes, director Rick Carter has set Dutchman in contemporary Chicago, though the references to current places and personalities jar with the universe indicated by the newspapers scattered on the floor announcing the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X–events three years distant from each other and some quarter of a century from us. Carter has also chosen to open his production with Clay–our briefcase-toting, Brooks Brothers-clad protagonist–dozing in his seat and dreaming of a slave auction. This stunning if trite visual image does nothing to explain why a cultured urban professional would allow himself to be drawn into conversation with Lula, who obviously has several screws loose in addition to a case of itchy britches.
Carter’s decision to include a full cast of fellow subway passengers also proves a mixed blessing: while it places the homicide in a social context–one spectator clearly sees the weapon in Lula’s hand and nods encouragement–their reactions tend to distract us from the central action. Andrea Urban acts up a storm as the provocative Lula, and so does understudy Ronald Donahue as the doomed Clay. But however much everyone involved in this Bulldog Productions debut may deserve a passing grade, the play still never rises above the level of a good acting-class exercise.