The most intriguing aspect of this four-part collaborative piece is the all-American historical event that inspired it, along with "Performing Ethnicity," the six-week theater conference (which concluded Sunday at City College) and performing arts festival (continuing through Nov. 21 at various OOB venues) of which it is a part.
The most intriguing aspect of this four-part collaborative piece is the all-American historical event that inspired it, along with “Performing Ethnicity,” the six-week theater conference (which concluded Sunday at City College) and performing arts festival (continuing through Nov. 21 at various OOB venues) of which it is a part.
Framing scenes written for the show by Ma-Yi director Ralph B. Pena prove a colorful introduction to that defining event — the 1904 St. Louis World Fair — at which fairgoers were “simultaneously awed and repelled by displays of exotic beauty and primitive savagery” by ethnic tribes imported from three continents.
In addressing the racial misconceptions, both quaint and cruel, that took root in America from such portrayals, this show questions how much these attitudes have changed in 100 years.
Against a midway backdrop, carnival barkers urge the yokels to marvel at attractions like the Ferocious Mohamid” (“Watch him pray five times a day!”) and Primitive Island People (“See their ritual sacrifice!”). But once they fork over their admission quarters and crowd inside the tent, fairgoers are exposed to something even more exotic — four short plays examining the ethnic experience in contemporary America.
Although it would seem to be the most relevant, Kia Corthron’s “P.O.W.W.,” in which an Afghan immigrant incarcerated in a Guantanamo jail cell is instructed in American-style civil liberties by a savvier immigrant from Cuba, is actually the least engaging. Despite the chilling accounts of their lives given by Abdul (Piter Marek) and Claire (Jeanine T. Abraham), play is preachy and obvious.
Han Ong’s “Peripherama” offers an insider’s view of the inequities and absurdities of ethnic casting in the entertainment industries. But while his frustrated Asian actors and writers have plenty to say about their thwarted ambitions (“I need to be seen”) and the demoralizing arc of their careers (“the temp jobs, the cater-waiter, the night watchman”), it’s a self-serving piece with zip entertainment value.
As a slice-of-life domestic drama focused on a rebellious Latino teenager (Aaron Yoo) and his concerned mother (Sophia Skiles), Jorge Ignacio Cortinas’ “Look, a Latino!” has more modest ambitions. But through exchanges of dialogue that feel remarkably in character, Cortinas conveys both the inevitability — and the poignancy — of the communication gulf between two generations that just don’t speak the same language. In Aaron Yoo’s softly spoken and finely tuned perf, the unabashed lies of the young thief-in-training would sound sweet to any mother’s ears.
Sandwiched among these plays of social significance is Sun Rno’s “Behind the Masq,” a musical send-up of ethnic hip-hop and cutting-edge electronic grunge that dares to be nothing more than a ton of fun. Sparked by a goofy perf by Ron Domingo as DMZ, a Korean-Filipino-Americano-rapper-poet-band leader who fancies himself the reincarnated Tupac, this zany spoof cheerfully gives it to entertainers who beg, borrow and steal from one another’s ethnic musical cultures. But in the end, it declares its own barbed point by having a Bunraku puppet (another good perf from Aaron Yoo) show DMZ the perils of forgetting who you are and where you came from.