Undesirable Elements/Chicago

Ping Chong at Duncan YMCA Chernin’s Center for the Arts, through June 13

By Carol Burbank

“In repeating we are becoming,” Gertrude Stein wrote in her epic novel The Making of Americans. ACT UP expresses the same idea more succinctly in the slogan “Silence = Death.” In the culture wars of the 90s, theater artists understand both the power of repeated stories and the importance of hearing many voices.

The usual immigrant story is a jumble of fact and fantasy, a banal Audie Murphy epic revealing the national character, as each successful new American recounts a hero’s journey through capitalist initiation. The impoverished immigrant arrives, works hard, learns the language, buys a house, raises a family, and lives well, with the loyal gusto of the newly free. There are elements of truth to this story; flawed as our systems might be, we are a wealthy, democratic country. But this archetypal tale also homogenizes immigrants, reducing differences to ethnic foods and quaint native dress, trotted out for parades and block parties.

Ping Chong’s ongoing series, Undesirable Elements, offers another kind of immigrant story. For six years this performance artist has traveled to various cities and towns, interviewed residents, and gathered a small cast to tell their tales. Editing and directing their experiences, he creates a collage designed to show the diversity simmering just below the surface of the melting pot. In Chicago he selected six storytellers. Some were born in the United States but most immigrated out of curiosity or necessity. Their narratives reveal a fascinating dual consciousness, the result of having two homes and feeling at home in neither one. In the discussion after the show, Chong argued that forcing immigrants to take on the role of the “other” creates stereotypes and blinds us to the people behind them; his ongoing title plays on the stigma attached to being different.

There’s more to these six Chicagoans than obvious stereotypes, however. South-sider Cecile Savage, who was born in France, is a jazz musician who’s struggled with reverse discrimination, living a nomad’s life, traveling between France and America and between black and white cultures. A Tajik man (name withheld) escaped Tajikistan’s civil war to become a student here; his extreme sense of isolation drives him to find people from his own country and to educate Americans about the war. Polish-born Ewa Boryczko talks about the challenges of becoming a model in America, from the necessity of networking to expensive investments in fashion, making it clear there are class expectations involved.

And the stories do more than simply explore ethnic differences. Oscar Groves, who’s gay and part Vietnamese, tells his sometimes painful stories with a playful mix of irony and delight. Mexican-German-American Brenda Cardenas talks about her mixed heritage but also about her experiences as a teacher, overcoming school administrators’ fear of taking what they called her “difficult students” on field trips. African-American Davida Ingram explains the strange feeling of homelessness inherent in returning to her “homeland”: she’s comfortable neither in Africa nor in the United States, because of her forced immigration.

Chong has arranged the stories chronologically, beginning with the storytellers’ grandparents and ending with their everyday lives in 1999. The performers call out a year or phrase, and each contributes a story or some information; then the next round begins. The set is simple: six black chairs arranged around a half circle of white sand, with a running series of maps projected in a glowing circle above the storytellers’ heads. Every two decades or so the performers change positions, a simple shift that unexpectedly alters the dynamic. Chong has them punctuate their stories with rhythmic clapping and unison recitations of dates or words. After each account of a war the storyteller says, “Blood soaked the earth,” and the group claps, as if emphasizing the commonality of this experience. Though the performers read from black binders, they connect with the audience and one another, creating a sense of choreographed community. They each recite poems and sing songs learned from their families. Telling their stories quickly, they pass the energy along to the next person with a glance.

Undesirable Elements/Chicago is an intriguing cross between a simple public reading and a stark performance piece. Chong’s spare aesthetic works well, allowing his storytellers to claim their own comfort level within the ambiguous spectrum between being oneself and playing a character onstage. And although his political message about valuing diversity frames the show, Chong lets the stories take center stage in this carefully orchestrated oral history, designed to challenge the ridiculous notion that the only good American is a white, Christian American.

But however clear the message, Undesirable Elements never seems preachy. It cuts too close to the bone for that. Listening to these stories made me realize how few questions I ask my family, acquaintances, and neighbors. We live in a culture where friendly curiosity about where people come from and what they believe is often rebuffed as prying. Our sense of community is based on creating a semblance of similarity; questions that explore our differences somehow seem rude and even dangerous.

The similarities between the storytellers keep the rhythm going in Undesirable Elements, but the uniqueness of their experiences keeps us interested. Chong and his generous cast admirably demonstrate that people are fascinating because they’re different. It seems so simple. But it’s perhaps the hardest and most important lesson we need to learn as Americans, to live up to the motto E Pluribus Unum.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Stephen Garrett.

This story has been amended from its original form