Tuesday, May 31, 2005


I posted a couple of weeks ago about this, but last Tuesday it was made official and covered in the LA Times. The Center Theater Group, which runs the Mark Taper Forum, the Ahmanson, and the Kirk Douglas Theater, terminated all of its new play development programs. This includes the Taper New Works Festival, all of their play readings, the Other Voices program for disabled artists, Blacksmyths Theater Lab, the Latino Theater Initiative, and the Asian American Theater Lab. Not only that, it means several important local playwrights/theater artists are unemployed. Brian Freeman, Chay Yew, and Luis Alfaro are all queers of color, and all were laid off in this decimation of the cultural diversity in Los Angeles Theater. And more than that, all of these artists were committed to nurturing and developing new artists, especially queer performers of color. The Taper New Works Festival supported artists such as Carmelita Tropicana, Alec Mapa, Denise Uyehara, and Luis Alfaro himself. This is an accomplishment in itself and a worthy goal. And if any of these people could survive as writers and playwrights because of those programs, that's reason enough not to cut them.

In the LA Times article surrounding the cuts, CTG's new Artistic Director, Michael Ritchie, who unilaterally decided on all of these cuts, comes off as a pompous, priveledged asshole who thinks that his taste and his perspective are universal. But who wants to put a man in charge of nurturing new plays who readily admits that he's never been to a playreading? That alone would be enough to get him fired from my ideal theater, especially a theater that boasts on its website that its mission is to "nurture artists," produce "groudbreaking experimental new works" and support a "diverse community".

I want more people to be angry about this. I want people to notice that 15 of the 16 productions annouced for next season are written by (straight?) white men. They're doing Chekov, for goodness sake! And there aren't even any women! It's a commitment to boring artistic mediocrity and straight white middle class values. And that's not what I want our major regional theater in LA to be about. CTG was the one place with the status and the funding that it COULD develop new works and support queers and artists of color and non-traditional play formats. The fact that it's choosing not to is extremely demoralizing. This decision is inexcusable and I hope they throw Ritchie out on his ass the first chance they get. I hope no one attends their next season with its unchallenging choices. And I hope Luis Alfaro, Brian Freeman, and Chay Yew speak out against this and go on to develop great new works in response to this conservative crackdown. I am extremely disappointed in this movement in the LA theater scene and I honestly hope the Taper suffers for it in terms of negative publicity, waning subscriber base, and critical scorn.

Bride and Bollywood

This evening I totally gave up on my endeavors to read Tango and the Political Economy of Passion (which is a highly intelligent and interesting book - I just wasn't patient enough to put up with its style this weekend) and went with my roommate to see Bride and Prejudice as a guilty treat right before my long day of classes tomorrow. The film is directed by the woman who directed Bend it Like Beckham and it's a combination of Bollywood style and the plot of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. It was released several months ago and I never went to see it, and it will probably be out on DVD pretty soon; I was honestly suprised that it was still playing at one of the smaller theaters near my house. The film got mostly horrible reviews, and honestly it would be hard for me to say who its ideal audience was, but personally I loved it.

I thought the film was fun and funny and self-aware and above all, beautiful. The actors and actresses were beautiful, the color and design was beautiful, the dance numbers were riveting. The film was not for a moment subtle by any stretch of the imagination, but it was grand and excessive and adorable and I spent a good deal of time giggling out loud, for both the moments that were delightful and those that made me cringe.

The not-so-hidden concern behind the film was globalization and the commodification of Indian culture: "you want five-star comfort with a little bit of culture" and the film was honestly participating in the exoticism while grappling with it. In the film, the solution seemed to be Darcy passing on buying an Indian hotel and learning some traditional drumming to impress his bride. The issue seemed a little unresolved and less than satisfying, but I think knowing that it's a problem without knowing the answer is probably about the best you can get and that's OK with me.

The film was much less concerned with the heteronormativity and conservativeness of its approach to marriage. Everyone seems to learn in the end that parents will always try to arrange marriages, and that perhaps some people can be happy with mercenary arrangements, but that marriage for love is truly ideal. The film ridicules mothers who attempt to organize marriage as a commodification of their daughters, selling them to the wealthiest suitor, but it is still the rich who prosper in the end. And it is also India who is represented by the traditional family and the women while the men are all wealthy and if not all Western then at least all living in LA or London. These men penetrate India, coming to a small town to meet and take away her daughters. I would have liked to see a resolution in which Lalita forces Darcy to stay in India with her beyond the traditional Indian wedding ceremony and riding off into the sunset on an elephant (really!).

As a version of Pride and Prejudice the film did leave a bit to be desired. Half the fun of that novel (or six-hour miniseries version with Colin Firth) is its deliberate pacing and maddening tension. The fast-paced Bollywood style creates a rather inconsistent mix. Lalita in Bride and Prejudice was a little too idealized as a heroine; though she jumped down Darcy's throat about economic colonialism and his Western ignorance, there wasn't really a moment where she wasn't completely lovable and we didn't totally sympathize with her as an audience. Darcy just didn't command as much attention or sympathy. But I think looking at the film in relationship to Pride and Prejudice is probably not the best way to judge it. As a work of weaving images and cultures, the film is brilliant and stunning, and its adherence to Austen's original is only equally as relevant as its adherence to the standards of Bollywood film, which I am the first to admit I am in no position to judge, although it did make me want to know more and in that if in nothing else I feel it was a success.

Watching the film made me even more anxious to read Gayatri Gopinath's book, Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures, which I haven't bought yet despite how excited I was for it to come out. From what I've seen of her speaking, Gopinath is brilliant, and I'd love to read more about her queer feminist postcolonial approach to Bollywood and "South Asian diasporic feminist filmmakers". When I saw her speak, she talked a bit about how the isolation between men and women in many Bollywood films creates a strong homosocial environment which can lead to homoerotic moments. I'd love to read more. And learn more about Bollywood and diasporic South Asian film, a category to which Bride and Prejudice certainly belongs.

Overall, I thought the film was delightful and I totally recommend it, but I also advise focusing on the pleasure of it rather than the politics. I suspect that is what it wants.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Like a Prayer, or el fin de la semana de teatro chicana/o

I just returned from my pilgrimage to the north to see Cherríe Moraga's The Hungry Woman: A Mexican Medea at Stanford. While I was quite familiar with the text of the play already (I lectured on it earlier this quarter) and the production didn't do anything radical to clarify, change or interpret that text, I am still quite grateful for the opportunity to have seen this production. It felt like a ritual that I was fortunate to have been allowed to witness.

My trip to the north was very much a pilgrimage, a trip specifically to see this particular play, a play that I feel is important to me as a queer theater scholar. Moraga's works don't seem to receive many productions and I'm not sure this one has ever been fully and professionally mounted. The production at Stanford was semi-professional; it had two Equity actors and a great deal of outside funding, but also several student performers and support from the Stanford Drama Dept.

Moraga's work is political and a bit didactic. This play is very specifically intended for a Chicana lesbian audience, which she makes very clear to those of us who aren't that ideal audience. The use of Spanish is less aesthetically pleasing than Alfaro's in Electricdad, though possibly more naturalistic. It seems intended to shut people out and remind them that they can't understand everything going on in the play, and maybe they aren't supposed to.

The thing that amazed me about seeing this production was how ambivalent I felt toward Medea, the main character. In reading the play, I had always assumed sympathy with Medea. She is clearly the center of the play, and seems to be the character with whom I most closely identify Moraga in terms of lesbian motherhood, heterosexual history, and Chicana feminist radicalism. The play is certainly her tragedy, centered around her as mother goddess and political prisioner. But VIVIS, who played Medea, played her as drunk and desperate and in general not as sympathetic as I had always assumed she would be. I definitely admired this decision, though it made me feel a little lost in the play without a central figure with whom to identify. I felt very conflicted about Medea as drunk and mad, as if it might be playing into negative stereotypes rather than rewriting them. I'm not sure.

By far my favorite performance in the play was Adelina Anthony as Luna. Anthony co-directed the production with Moraga, and she did a stunning job as both director and performer. Of course I must acknowledge my tendency to appreciate anyone playing a nuanced butch role, but Anthony did so particlarly well. She had her shoulder-length hair in braids and at times wasn't even wearing particularly butch clothing, and yet she managed to pull off a tough, sensitive, sympathetic portrayal of Luna the lesbian stonemason who is losing the woman she has loved for the past seven years. Because the play is centered around Medea, it's hard to characterize Luna consistently. She has lived with Medea and raised Medea's son for seven years, since they were first caught together and became exiles, but she also realizes that Medea is drifting away from her and she wants something more. For Luna, her lesbianism is unconflicted; it's not something she could deny or give up. Actually, she's more a symbol of butch lesbian than a fully fleshed-out character in a lot of ways. Her relationship to Medea and her symbolic importance are more central to the play than a consistent character development. She is faithful and loving to Medea despite Medea's madness and the temptation of a flirtateous friend. Anthony handled all this with beautiful understanding and maturity; despite the fact that she was notably younger and has less experience as a professional actress than VIVIS, she matched her and even outshone her in her love for the play and the role.

What I love about The Hungry Woman is its concept; it's set in "the not-too-distant future of a reimagined past," in what was the US after the revolution. Its subjuntive setting posits what if racially-motivated revolutions such as those posited in the Chicano and Black Power movements in the '60s had succeeded. This production rewrites that history into the 1980s, stating that if the Soviet Union could fall, why not the US? The US breaks into several smaller countries, Gringolandia covering the Northeast, the South becoming Afro-America, the Southwest joining with Mexico to form Aztlán and Native Americans and First Nations peoples also possessing their own homeland. In this imagined history, after the revolution the newly-formed states, particularly Aztlán, returned to gender politics as usual and sent the women back to the kitchens. Medea, who had been a leader of the revolution, was forced into a role as mother an housewife until she falls for a woman and gets caught. The play takes place in Phoenix, Arizona, a border town and ghetto where queers of all colors are exiled from the homelands that deny them. I love this almost sci-fi realism of the imagined future; the world that Moraga creates here is compelling, and could be the birthplace of so many fascinating stories.

The Hungry Woman centers around Medea and her son, Chac-Mool. Jasón, Medea's estranged husband, wants to take Chac-Mool back to Aztlán now that he's coming of age. Medea's relationship to Chac-Mool is oddly sexualized and obsessive; she doesn't want to relinquish him to his father, despite Jasón's legal rights. So instead she kills her son (or was it a dream? or was she insane?). The question seems to be how can we raise our children? Is there a model out there for a different kind of man or can we create one? Will boys always grow up to be men and take on patriarchal power in which their mothers and all women can be dominated and rejected? It raises interesting issues around lesbian motherhood as well as around the intersections of race and gender.

I could, and probably should, keep writing more about this production. I think it's important that this is documented, and it should probably be considered definitive considering the playwright's involvement in the production. It's a very strong production of a fascinating if problematic play and I could keep thinking and writing about it forever. But it's time for bed now.

Friday, May 13, 2005

La Semana de Teatro Chicano

Esta noche, I saw Electicidad by Luis Alfaro at the Mark Taper Forum, finally! I need to stop putting things off to the very end of the run; it closes this weekend. But anyway, I enjoyed it very much. It was a version of Sophocles' Electra (although there seemed to be some Antigone mixed in as well) set in el barrio de East Los (East LA). And I must say that it was a little more Electra than I thought it would be, and also quite a bit more funny than I expected. Especially at the beginning there was a great deal of humor. I worried a bit about the exoticizing and sanitizing of the Cholo culture that Alfaro was attempting to represent, but I thought he did it with a great deal of love and respect for both his Greek and his local originals.

It also seemed to be an exercise in female masculinity; both Electricidad in her Dickies remaining true to her father when her brother was too "soft" and "sensitive" and Iphigenia wearing a Catholic school girl uniform (she left the barrio to join a convent) with all the grace and comfort of a butch in a dress challenge and disrupt their mother (Clemencia's) aggressive female sexuality and hunger for power. Ifi's the kind of girl that dances with women (as suggested by the Chorus at the beginning of the show), with a deep gravelly voice a big frame and a wide stance, and though she's a minor character compared to her sister, I personally was fascinated by this completely untraditional characterization. Trici and Ifi are both looking for peace and structure from an absent father and each finds her faith; for Electricidad, it's the Cholo culture of which her father was el Rey, while for Ifi it's Catholicism. For both their faith is challenged throughout the play.

One of the great things about this play was the language. It was written in Spanglish and the fluidity and ease with which the actors moved back and forth between Spanish and English was beautiful. Their accents were strong and their speaking rapid, so that I wondered if the non-Spanish-speaking little old ladies in the audience were getting anything at all out of the play. But then part of me didn't care because of the sheer aural virtousity of the performance. Each of the actors voices was strong and unique, from the tough and gravelly Ifi to the high and nervous Orestes, and their accents were very clear and so familiar here in LA.

On a side note, the Abuela (another character not exactly in Sophocles' version), was played by Alma Martinez, who happened to be at Stanford working on her PhD while I was an undergrad. I barely knew her, because I believe she advanced to candidacy my freshman year or so, but I certainly knew her name and probably checked out props for her a couple of times. Anyway, I knew she studied the Teatro Campisino, but I had NO IDEA she was the same Alma Martinez whose name appears in the cast list for plays like Zoot Suit and even in the film. She's totally a major Chicana actress, and I hadn't a clue. She's teaching at UC Santa Cruz now (and apparently still hasn't finished her dissertation), but it was really strange to see someone I knew, however tangentially, onstage at the Taper without expecting it.

La Semana de Teatro Chicano empezó el viernes pasado con las Butchlalís de Panochtitlan y continua con la Hungry Woman esté domingo. ¡Que divertido!

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Start Writing Your Letters Now

It hasn't been officially announced yet, but inside sources have confirmed that the new Artistic Director at the Center Theatre Group is planning to terminate all of CTG's new play development programs. This is horrible news. CTG, which runs the Mark Taper Forum and the Ahmanson theater and recently acquired the Kirk Douglas Theater with the specific intention of having a venue in which to develop new works, is planning on terminating all of its Labs, which include the Asian American Theatre Workshop run by Chay Yew, Blacksmyth's Theater Lab run by Brian Freeman, and the Latino Theatre Initiative run by Luis Alfaro. These are important LA artists and their projects do an amazing job at fostering new work. CTG was a major force in the development of Angels in America and Anna Deveare Smith's Twilight: Los Angeles among other things. A reading at CTG was an important developmental step for Cherrie Moraga's The Hungry Woman. And the Taper has premiered several of Lanford Wilson's plays. They have an amazing history of supporting and premiering important new works and most importantly a commitment to fostering diversity. They need to continue this work, and it looks like the new Artistic Director doesn't understand this mission. It's up to us as audience members to protest how boring and white their 2006 season is looking (Annette Bening in the Cherry Orchard! Come on!). LA expects better than this, and we need to let them know. Join me and speak out about this in whatever way you can. People need to know. It should be in the LA times and all over the place.

Monday, May 09, 2005


I saw Applause! tonight done by REPRISE, which does week-long productions of old musicals with short rehearsal periods. Tonight was a free preview for which the professor for my class this quarter gave me a free ticket. The show was fun in that the audience was mostly full of really enthusiastic high school students who were an incredibly responsive crowd. Otherwise, the production was a little bit off, but interesting.

For me, the high point was totally John Fleck, one of the NEA 4 and in general a fabulous local gay performance artist. He played the gay hairdresser, including looking absolutely wonderful in leather in a gay bar scene. He had a fabulous gravelly voice and in was in general quite queeny and entertaining.

And Applause! definitely justifies playing to the stereotype; it's a show that revels in the campiness of Broadway and of All About Eve including a whole song devoted to "Hold on, it's going to be a bumpy night." There was also a whole scene in a gay bar/disco, which was weird in that the play was set in 1968 (ie pre-Stonewall), so the whole number was rather anachronistic but fun. There were even guys dressed as leather men, but they then acted totally fey and that was a bit odd.

The notable thing about this production was its interracial-ness. The Margo Channing/Bette Davis role was played by Sheryl Lee Ralph, who is most famous for performing in Dreamgirls on Broadway. She was totally a diva, and every song she peformed was a sort of abrupt break-out number. The actress playing Eve was a forgettable and mousy girl who totally couldn't compare with Ralph at all. It was a fascinating casting decision, though. I'm not sure how I feel about it. The moment where Margo's boyfriend accidentally embraces Eve because she's wearing one of Margo's old dresses is completely ridiculous, but more signigicantly, what does it mean to have a young white woman moving in and taking over for an older African-American actress? It felt rather creepy and disingenuous the way everyone kept claiming it was so nice to see someone "young" in the part. What I'm alluding to is how much this is a manifestation of the reassuring usurpation of African-American culture and power by bland white performers. Of course the original text is creepy enough. The whole play resolves with Margo learning that she doesn't really want fame or success, but really just wants to get married to her boyfriend and maybe even have a child. Sigh.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Take me, papi!

This evening I saw the Butchlalis de Panochtitlan perform at Highways. Oddly enough, they seem to have transformed themselves from a duo to a quartet, though one of them oddly enough didn't actually say anything. They are a wonderful, though certainly problematic performance experience, most definitely worth paying for, and even worth falling for. If nothing else, they're pretty good at turning on their audience. Adorably tough and funny, they put on a great show even though there are some kinks to work out. Many of the problems are small and technical - volume and pacing issues, that kind of thing. I'd love to see them a little more polished.

First of all, they're "butch dykes/transgender butches/genderqueer speaking subjects that are not trying to pass as men." Which is interesting, since a few of the pieces definitely hinted at a discussion of transitioning. It seems that at least one (Raquel?) is on T, or perhaps just thinking about it. Masculinity is definitely their main subject. They describe it as the "in-
between space of female biology and testerone-taking transexuality and the identities and neighborhoods these subjects claim and are claimed by." And of course they also discuss Chicana identities, the race and class that are inseparable from performances of gender. Although I wonder a little about their racial politics; how do they feel about the white members of their audience? I picture them along the lines of Cherrie in terms of that being not their ideal audience and thus it not mattering too much if some things go over their heads. Is it a problem if a performer doesn't like a part of their audience? Is that really how they feel? Interestingly, their website promotes the show as organized terms of LA geography, which I think didn't really come through in this particular production but which I'd love to see. It's a fascinating concept; mapping the process of identity onto the city. (OK, it also feeds into something I've been thinking about recently, I'll admit). I can't wait until that production sees the light.

The most interesting, and quite possibly the most problematic, was their final scene, entitled "BDSM." If I recall correctly, it was addressed to 'my academic daddy' or something like that. And it ended with one performer hitting another with her belt. For me it evoked the oddly kinky relationships we tend to have with our academic advisors. I was probably reading it through the artists' biographies (one of them works with Jack), but that may not be wrong. But it also talked about butch-on-butch action and the relationship between artists and the reviewers and academics who write about them; it implied that desire for representation is problemetized by the possiblity that that representation also co-opts the performers' own authenticity and glorifies the academic rather than the artist. This piece also feminized its speaker, which counteracted the masculinity of the boi/boi sexual tension. But really, I think they brought the academic BDSM to the stage and that made me rather uncomfortable - it was quite intense. Nipples and hot wax and spanking. Situating it at the end of the piece might have been a mistake - I'm not sure. It makes the audience leave on a somber and contemplative note when I think they'd be better off ending with more laughing and cheering.

Overall, I loved the performance. They are certainly audience pleasers: sexy, sassy, and hot, hot, hot. They have a lot to say, and say it well, although I hope I get the chance to see them get better. I definitely left the venue stimulated both mentally and physically. I wouldn't mind any one of those papis taking a belt to me (or kissing my heels - whatever works). I'd love to get them together with Turner, my other favorite young trannyboi performance artist and see what kind of dialogue they would come up with (or perhaps just as my own personal fantasy).