Alien Nation

Ping Chong brings the Other to life.

By Justin Hayford

In a dumpy, windowless room, Ewa sits nervously at one end of a long wooden table. It is, quite literally, the audition of her life.

With her chiseled features, dancer’s physique, and halting English, you might mistake her for an eastern European film star. Ten years ago she might have longed to be that star: after finishing high school in her native Krakow, she auditioned for the local drama school but was told that her overbite and poor diction made her ineligible. So she gave up acting and emigrated here. She now tends bar.

Had she stayed in the theater, it’s unlikely she would be auditioning today for Ping Chong, one of the most acclaimed avant-garde stage directors in the world. He’s in the midst of a five-week residency at the Duncan YMCA Chernin’s Center for the Arts. Chong isn’t looking for actors. He’s recruiting eyewitnesses to the “human diaspora” of the 20th century, people who have crossed borders–of nations, classes, ethnic identities, political affiliations–and found themselves stuck in the role of semisuspect outsider. They’ll tell their stories in Undesirable Elements, a performance piece about people negotiating the precarious divide between their native and adopted cultures. The show opens this Friday and runs for the next six weeks. Today Ewa doesn’t have to show a head shot or perform a monologue, she just has to tell her life story.

She was born in September, “the most beautiful month in Krakow,” but can’t recall the name of the hospital or the time of her birth. She doesn’t know if her name means anything. She does know that her grandmother grew up on a farm and went to the city to study to become a teacher, and that her grandmother’s father paid part of her tuition with sacks of grain.

“How did her father transport the grain?” Chong asks suddenly. Ewa is silent for a moment, hesitant, as though she’s being cross-examined, perhaps even discredited. “It must have been a long way,” Chong explains. “How did they transport the grain?”

“With a horse,” Ewa finally offers. “And a cart.”

Chong makes sure his assistant jots down this detail and continues on in a similar vein, trying to map the tiniest contours of history onto Ewa and her family. The collapse of the Soviet system and the rise of Solidarity is embodied in the image of an adolescent Ewa waiting in line for three hours to buy sugar.

How did the sugar come?

Was it in packages?

What did they look like?

Did you have to bring your own container to carry the sugar?

Ewa’s tale of her first trip to Jewel captures the culture shock of the new immigrant. “Here was food within arm’s reach,” she recalls. “It was like being in Disneyland. I stayed in there for hours.”

Ewa says she’s proud to have “escaped” Poland and of having built an independent life in America. “But one leg is over there, and one leg is here,” she says. “After years with no family, what price do I have to pay for this freedom?”

Chong has been creating versions of Undesirable Elements in cities around the world since 1992. The Chicago show will include a gay Vietnamese-American man who grew up in Texas, a Parisian native who moved to Chicago’s south side to play the blues, and a young Tajikistan refugee who’s seen 22 of his relatives killed in that country’s ongoing civil strife. “Over the years, this project has given me the opportunity to meet people from different cultures I never would have otherwise,” Chong says. “Where else am I going to meet a Somalian parking attendant or Sitting Bull’s great-great-grandson or a member of Iceland’s founding family?”

Chong makes no bones about the political ax he wants to grind. On a superficial level, he’s out to counter the American propensity to malign and fear the “other”–from welfare mothers to the entire continent of Asia. But his real agenda is to “oppose the predominant power structures,” to show how the concept of foreignness has been used to exploit the imagined disparity between “us” and “them.” “With the rise of the New Right, my work has become much more overtly political,” he explains. “As an artist, I have to do my part to address what’s happening.”

In some ways, Chong has been developing Undesirable Elements since the day he was born. He was raised in Manhattan’s Chinatown in a Chinese-speaking family and went to an elementary school that was “99.9 percent Chinese.” But when he went to a predominantly white high school, he suddenly knew what it meant to be “the other.” It’s a label he hasn’t been able to shake since. “As an artist I’m an outsider in American society. As an experimental artist I’m an outsider within the art world. As a person of color I’m an outsider, as an immigrant I’m an outsider, as a gay man I’m an outsider. It’s the position that fate has allotted me, but it’s a valuable position to be in, because I think every society should have a mirror held to it by the outsider.”

At the end of her three-hour interview, Ewa gets the good news that she’ll be in the show, overbite and all. “It has always been my dream to be able to sit here and tell you my feelings,” she says. “It’s important to me to be in this show because for years no one cared what happened to us.”

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