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'The Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven' Playfully Forces Audience to Examine Cultural Clichés

April 6, 2011

Young Jean Lee's play is both deeply distancing and intimate

In a recent blog post on the Crowded Fire Theater Company’s website, one of the actresses from its new play, “The Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven,” by the New York-based dramatist Young Jean Lee, opined on her experience with the play’s main theme of cultural identity.

“Even though I’m a Chinese-American actor, I’ve played a Korean mother, a Japanese lounge singer, a British divorcee, and a German cabaret dancer,” wrote Lily Tung Crystal, a Chinese actress who plays a Korean character, “And if I’m lucky sometimes I get to play a Chinese person who is not a doctor or a prostitute.”

Plays like “Yankee Dawg You Die” by Philip Kan Gotanda and David Henry Hwang’s “M. Butterfly” also deal with Asian typecasting issues. But the disarming lack of specificity that runs through Lee’s spiky-spunky theatrical presentation has a far more disconcerting effect on the viewer than many other dramas covering similar thematic terrain.

Lee’s sharp exploration of cultural cliche forces —in a playful way —the audience to confront the modern urban truisms while showing how pointless it is to try to make sense of them. She uses a variety of tools — subtle humor as well as in-your-face shock tactics — to drive home her points.

At the same time, the work remains as inscrutable as a smiling Buddha.

The play, largely plotless, uses a “vaguely Asian” flavor of the dramaturgy and mise-en-scene to satirical effect. The bare, plywood-lined stage with a single floral mandala scratched into the center of the floor — the only defining feature of Emily Greene’s set design — gives very little away about setting or style.

The script notes call for actors in the parts of Korean 1, Korean 2 and Korean 3 to be played by “actresses who are one-hundred percent Korean, Chinese or Japanese (or any mix of the three, for example half Chinese/half Japanese.)” Crowded Fire and the Asian American Theater Company’s slick, sensitively staged co-production includes Korean characters played by actresses with ethnic roots and linguistic abilities in Mandarin (Lily Tung Crystal), Cantonese (Katie Chan), and Japanese (Mimu Tsujimura).

And you of course have no clue (unless you are fluent in Mandarin, Cantonese and Japanese or have read the script) that the chatter between the doll-like Asian ladies, rambunctiously choreographed by director Marissa Wolf, is largely about sex and violence. It’s the perfect theatrical metaphor for ignorance.

The homogenization of cultural difference extends beyond the Asian characters. Lee engages in white stereotyping too. Every now and again, a heterosexual Caucasian couple, White Person 1 (Alexis Papedo) and White Person 2 (Josh Schell), holds angst-ridden conversations on themes like their relationship, the state of the environment and a wishful aspiration to visit Africa. In addition to the subjects of conversation, which could have been ripped from the “Stuff White People Like Blog,” the use of harsh, sickly pallor-inducing fluorescent lights, exclusively reserved for the scenes featuring the Caucasian couple, take the concept of “whiteness” to an extreme.

The effect of all of this is, at one level, deeply distancing. The play’s opening scene, in which disembodied voices (a recording of Lee and some of her friends) chat about how to capture the playwright being hit repeatedly in the face on video camera further compounds this feeling. The experience, then, of watching the video of Lee in close-up reeling from the punches adds an element of nasty surprise that’s at once appalling and compelling.

At another level, the intimacy of this scene counterbalances the play’s bland characterizations of cultural identity. One character in particular embodies this struggle. The Korean American, played with a winsome matter-of-factness by Cindy Im, clad in jeans, sneakers and a t-shirt, is the picture of a conflicted soul. When the three “pure-bred” Korean characters perform a graceful traditional dance in their delicate, bubble-gum-colored dresses, she tries to join in, but is mocked by the others for her clumsy movements.

At the same time, Korean American constantly derides Koreans. She calls her parents “retarded monkeys” and makes “Chinese eyes” gestures in front of the Korean trio. But then she turns around and makes grandiose statements about Korean supremacy that hilariously make her sound like a comic book villain: “The wiliness of the Korean is beyond anything that you could ever hope to imagine. I can promise you one thing, which is that we will crush you.”

These lines are particularly striking because at heart “Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven” is a play about how attempts at self-empowerment only lead to self-sabotage.

In one of the most memorable sequences from the production, Korean American joins Koreans 1, 2 and 3 in a ghoulish game. Like break-dancers showing-off their physical prowess surrounded by a circle of peers, the characters mime various hideous forms of self-harm. Smiling and laughing throughout, one drinks a bottle of beer, smashes the bottle over her knee, and uses the broken bottle to cut her wrists. Another decapitates herself with a wire. A third cuts off two of her fingers with a pair of scissors, then cuts out her tongue and stabs herself in the eyes. Then they scuttle off-stage.

The play ends up being hijacked by the white characters, babbling interminably about self-improvement against the backdrop of a mournful indie rock song. As a concluding statement for a work of art exploring Korean identity politics, this is strange. But that’s just the point. As Lee’s warped dramaturgy so insightfully shows, attempts to understand the intractable culture surrounding us are bound to end in frustration and negation, regardless of our ethnic background.

But like Lee being hit in the face on video and, in spite of the pain, coming back for more, we can’t help continuously trying to make sense of the world.



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