A tragic incident in Los Angeles annals — the Oct. 24, 1871, murders of 17 ethnic Chinese by a crazed mob — receives neither the history it deserves nor the theatrical experience it promises in “The Chinese Massacre (Annotated),” one of two simultaneous Tom Jacobson world premieres at the Atwater Village complex. The titular footnotes, spoken by thesps stepping out of character, are (it says here) a Brechtian device included because “the play demands that you experience it with your mind, not your heart.” Yet neither organ is sufficiently provoked by Jacobson’s undercooked approach to the sadly timeless problem of vigilante justice born of racism.
Various quarreling ethnicities were jammed together into 1871 L.A.’s narrow streets and pasteboard houses, seemingly united only by fear and hatred of “John Chinaman,” “Mongols,” “yellow devils after our cocks” and “a childlike race bereft of God’s saving grace,” all quotations taken from the public record.
Following recent scholarship, Jacobson suggests an argument between rival Chinese tongs likely set off the evening’s fireworks, but Angelenos evidently needed nothing more than a reported first shot to assume the heathen devils were running amuck and in need of correction.
The ubiquitous annotations insulate us from the grim events. Some offer wry self-reference, as when a thesp concedes the stipend-saving effect of so much cast doubling or introduces a bit of authorial speculation with: “This next line may be a lie.” Others offer historical context for its own sake (L.A. possessed exactly six cops in 1871; think of that), or prompt a response of “Tsk! How shameful!” when, for instance, we’re told the unreliability of Chinese witnesses was written into state law.
What the footnotes don’t do is encourage us to consider the events in anything resembling a sophisticated way, for they surround a tale otherwise told in predictably sentimental terms.
The view of humanity is depressingly Manichean: There are sympathetic victims and bloodthirsty beasts, barring the odd white observer wringing his hands at the madness of it all. (One character even evokes the plaintive plea from the Rodney King era, “Can’t we all just get along?”) If a single right-thinking, morally upright non-Asian got swept up on Oct. 24 to kill — surely the most interesting profile to explore, psychologically speaking — he or she doesn’t appear on the Atwater stage.
We keep flashing forward 20 years (another “alienation device”) to the confrontation between a steely, saintly investigator and an unregenerate bigot, both behaving in precise stereotype. Yet there’s nothing Brechtian about portraying life in black-and-white terms. Not when the creator of Mother Courage, Galileo and Mack the Knife only saw shades of gray.
In the play’s insistence that systemic racism and violence constantly bubble beneath society’s surface, its real ancestor is really the agitprop of Joan Littlewood’s Theater Workshop. And if Jacobson chose to put the annotations right into the characters’ mouths and added songs to foster a music hall environment, he might achieve the impact he seeks in the manner of Littlewood’s “Oh! What a Lovely War” or “The Hostage.”
Yet the youthful Circle X ensemble, under Jeff Liu’s messy helming, can’t keep the multiple characters distinct, let alone endow them with precise seriocomic definition. They fall back into standard, dull Stanislavski realism and muddy diction. The few who make a vividly theatrical impression — Lisa Tharps’ polished steel as the redoubtable African-American medico Biddy Mason; Ryun Yu finding sinister comedy in entrepreneur Yo Hing — only highlight the weak links around them.
A closing coda sophomorically equates the 1871 incident with 1943’s Zoot Suit attacks, 1965’s Watts riots and the events surrounding King’s 1992 beating. Perhaps it’s time for the glib “Can’t we all just get along?” to be replaced by, “Can’t we look at complex behavior in a nuanced way?”