Sunday, March 20, 2016

Gone but Not Forgotten - HOT KEYS

I tossed 20 years of theater files but that doesn't mean they're gone gone gone. This is a series of articles with photographs and musings of some of the more special items.

Here's the flyer for HOT KEYS by Jeff Weiss, a serial soap opera that won an Obie Citation. (Click to see it enlarged.)

Jeff Weiss ala Humphrey Bogart.

"...until Jeff has had enough..."

I met Jeff through Tony Nunziata, also known as Tony Fish, who was part of the gay musical trio Hot Peaches. Sometimes I think how funny it was that all the people who looked out for me when I was a snotty teen were all gay men. But then, if you grew up in a downtown NYC theater in the 1980s and 1990s, everyone you knew happened to be a gay man. I didn't know Tony very well but he asked me to be part of a reading. It was at that big building on 10th Street and Broadway across from Grace Church. The apartment was fabulous, one of my first instances of seeing a place decorated with incredible taste. I stared in awe at some gorgeous Greek theater etchings on the wall and then Tony came over and informed me that they were early works by Picasso. Well, the play was something about a Vietnam vet written and starring Jeff Weiss. I was in the last scene with Jeff, playing a Vietnamese woman encouraging him to eat pig's balls. Apparently, I knocked the scene out of the park, since he invited me to be part of his new project HOT KEYS.

I still think what a genius idea this piece was. It was another iteration of Jeff's serial theater pieces with a different "episode" every week. We got the script for the scene(s) we were in on Monday or Tuesday, rehearsed on Wednesday and Thursday, and performed the episode on Friday and Saturday. Repeat the following week. The only constants were that each "episode" began with the Rodgers and Hart song Where or When, and somewhere in the middle of the episode one character would sing the gorgeous ballad Please Let Love Pass Me By, written by Jeff's partner, Carlos Martinez. The perverse and sprawling storyline was something about various murderers who go on the lam and end up in Disneyland.

Jeff wrote the part of Mary Lois for me. At least I think he did. I was 18 and I had a slight reputation after living in TNC's cages. In HOT KEYS, I played a wild teenage party girl from South Jersey who murders the milkman. Or maybe it was the postman. My mother was played by the amazing Kristen Johnston, whom some of you might know from 3rd Rock to the Sun. And my boyfriend Wesley was played by Neil Pepe who later became Artistic Director of the Atlantic Theatre. Here's the first page of my first scene with Wes.

From the sexy & perverse imagination of Jeff Weiss.

I turned down a part in a regional production of M BUTTERFLY that would've gotten me an Equity card to be in HOT KEYS. Sometimes I think maybe that was a bad career move, but I was 18 and it seemed like a helluva lot more fun and interesting to be in HOT KEYS. And in a way, I was right. I met some amazing people and I was part of an Obie Award winning production. But I did learn a hard lesson about the pitfalls of being poor.

There was a peculiar rich/poor or uptown/downtown divide in HOT KEYS. I think Jeff knowingly set it all up, being the mischievious imp that he is. Almost all of the actors came from four theaters: Naked Angels, Atlantic Theatre, La Mama and TNC. For those of you who are unfamiliar with NYC's theater landscape, Naked Angels and Atlantic are tonier theaters in Chelsea with more experienced actors. But Jeff gave the juicier roles to people from the scruffy East Village theaters La Mama and TNC. The actors from Naked Angels and Atlantic mostly played talkative cops. This made for a rather tense environment but I think Jeff liked it that way.

At that time, I was a teenage runaway and homeless. By the time I was in HOT KEYS, I was no longer living in TNC's basement, but I was drifting around various SROs in New York. For those of you who don't know, SRO stands for Single Room Occupancy and they were teeny tiny cheap hotel rooms for single people set up after World War 2 mostly for returning vets. If you were poor, SROs were a great option since they were about $100 a week. They were usually segregated by sex and in the 1980s and 1990s, the best ones for women were the Allerton and Martha Washington. But I also stayed at skeevier places like the Kensington and the Lincoln, which to my consternation turned out to be a whore hotel. The Lincoln was later knocked down and it's now the Baruch Performing Arts Center.

Well, being poor, things happen like you suddenly can't pay for your phone service. I turned up at Naked Angels one Wednesday for rehearsal as usual and to my shock, I discovered that I'd been replaced. It seems the stage manager had tried to call me and wigged out that I couldn't be reached even though I had been attending every week for like three months. The East Village folk understood how you could have your phone shut off and they were livid. For a moment, it seemed the rich/poor divide in HOT KEYS would implode. But I didn't want any part of it. I left the production and never saw Jeff again.

Shortly after HOT KEYS, Carlos became ill and Jeff took him home to Allentown, PA to take care of him. Sometimes I think about Carlos' beautiful ballad Please Let Love Pass Me By. I wish I remembered more of the lyrics. There was recently a 3-night retrospective of Jeff's work at The Kitchen. Don Shewey's blog has a lovely review of the event (scroll down). And Jim Moore of Vaudevisuals posted a video of one of the songs sung in HOT KEYS. It seems I can't embed it, but the link is here.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Goodbye Old Life

Decluttering has become something of a trend lately, with promises of a simpler more fulfilling life once you’re free of all your junk. But I’m not purging my things because I need more space. I have no space. I’m letting go of an entire lifetime of things because I have to.

Yesterday, I tossed 20 years of files on theater work that I’ve done since I was a teenager. Flyers from shows at LaMama and Theater for the New City and Synchronicity Space and Ensemble StudioTheater. Contact sheets from a 10-hour anti-war festival I organized back during the first Gulf War with phone numbers for Allen Ginsberg and Patti Smith. All the scripts and playbills and research for the 30-odd staged readings and short film screenings I produced for my company Direct Arts. Hard copies of grant applications, rejection letters and a few acceptances. Each file was a milestone in my life, a small symbol of accomplishment. The only file I kept was the one for my old friend James Purdy.

Today, I’ll be selling nearly 500 books. Most people know that I didn’t finish high school and I never went to college. My parents never once spent an evening working on homework with me; they can barely read English. These books were my education. Here are the books that taught me about literature, art, design, film, mythology, global politics and history. It's because of these books that I speak and think and write the way I do. The only real difference between me and immigrants working low-end kitchen jobs are these 500 books.

There are also about 5 boxes of clothes, mostly vintage and tattered. This is another way that I’ve been able to set myself apart from my immigrant roots. For better or worse, I was born with a mutant aberration that gave me a sense of style. But without any money, I’ve always had to scrounge around to realize any kind of look. So all these torn and wrinkled dresses and jackets from the 1940s and 1950s represent mild triumphs for me. A way for me to thumb my nose at consumer culture and homogeny and economic class all at once.

At times the ghoulish part of me thinks that this would be a great time for me to die or commit suicide. No one will need to clean up after me. Everything I have is gone. But sheesh, that’s depressing. (And no, I'm not that ready to end things.) 

I know that these papers and books and dresses are valuable to no one but me. And they're only valuable because they inform who I am. If all the evidence from my theater history is gone, you can't take it away from me, but how can I prove it to anyone else? But then again, why do I need to prove it anyway? I’ve always loved that random pieces of paper in an archive is called “ephemera.” Like a theater production, everything we have is ephemeral. The curtain closes and the next moment, something else is on stage. So what’s next now? The stage is swept and empty. I'm jonesing for opening night.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Rambling Notes on Being Nuyorasian in Berlin

My facebook feed is full of friends in America proclaiming #BlackLivesMatter and #Justice4Liang and most recently, the whole debacle of #OscarsSoWhite. I’m following the stories but here in Berlin, the battle for racial justice is in a galaxy far far away. Yes, the refugee crisis is everywhere and racism is definitely part of the problem. But refugees are newcomers fleeing from war or famine or extreme poverty; they’re not citizens battling for justice and equity within entrenched systems. In Europe, the race issue is over having enough pieces of cake to give out, while in America, the bakers are wondering why they just get crumbs.

Obviously, I don’t face the discrimination that refugees confront here. People don’t think I’m dirty or looking for a handout. But being Asian-American has its own weirdness in Berlin. I think this has a lot to do with how few Asians there are. People from the Middle East are the only sizeable minority and they’re only 9% of the 3.5 million people in the city. Asians are just 3% of the population. There is no Chinatown. And Germany never had an Asian colony so there isn’t a history with all its inherent baggage.

On the one hand, this is rather liberating. There isn’t really any fetishization of Asian women here. Germans don’t look at me and see a geisha sex kitten, ready to dispense koan-like wisdom and a tea ceremony. And my added American-ness just confuses them. It seems no one knows what to make of me; an Asian-looking woman with some kind of vintage style who speaks perfect English. I definitely don’t look like I work in a nail salon. I also don’t look much like a student. “I’m so surprised,” a rather drunk friend of a friend kept repeating after every sentence I said. I’ve seen a room full of lonely guys check out every girl in the room but their eyes pass right over me like I’m a table or a chair. It’s definitely not the States, where a recent study of 25 million OKCupid members showed that Asian women are the most desired race of women in online dating. Because, you know, geisha sex kitten.

At times, I rather miss being fetishized. Well, it’s not all that pleasant being looked at from the ass-end of a telescope, but at least you’re looked at. In New York, I often found myself in an intense political conversation and then caught the guy beaming at me with a paternal look that seemed to say, “Aww, it’s so cute. It’s even talking.” Here, the look is more one of utter consternation, “Ack, it’s talking?!! In English??? What is it?!” I wonder which is worse. Or how this compares with Asia, where the general reaction is skepticism tinged with disapproval.

But while there isn’t much of a fetish for Asian women, that’s not to say there aren’t Asian stereotypes in Berlin. I danced at a Chinatown-themed party on New Year’s Eve. All the white bartenders dressed in cheongsams with chopsticks in their hair. I had an interesting conversation with a white guy trying to ignore that he was all done up like Madame Butterfly with a kimono, white face, and slanty-eyed makeup. I think I must have been the only one to notice or care that the only Asian music at the so-called Chinatown party was J-pop.

My feelings about cultural (mis)appropriation are very very mixed. I’m not always offended. It’s the other way around too: I see Asians all the time trying really damn hard to be Americans through some token surface means. They bleach their hair blond, wear blue contact lenses, get a nose job. Or they wear baseball caps backwards and low-hanging pants. For Asians, it does seem to come from some kind of inferiority, as if by dyeing their hair or wearing that hat, they can assume a power they wish they had.

For Europeans aping Asians, it’s definitely the other way around. Here are white people, with all their privileges, trying to find a way to be “other.” They wear Native American feathered bonnets and get all tribal or they put on blackface like this lady attempting to bring attention to those poor African tribes. It's a misplaced magnanimity, thinking they can embrace another culture by adopting traditional dress or other surface representations. The line here is kind of fuzzy. Painting your face another color and taping your eyes in a slant and dancing around a teepee: no no no. But antique kimonos are beautiful and I'm glad some other people appreciate them as long as they're not bowing and shuffling like they're Princess Yum Yum in the Town of Titipu. It's interesting to me; this desire to be the “other.” Most people who come from marginalized communities will basically agree that it sucks and if there was a way to erase all the marks of being "other" and still be true to yourself, then YES PLEASE.

I guess this is what I find hardest to relate to: Germans are not underdogs. I’m generalizing very much of course -- and things were different fifty years ago for half of the country -- but at this particular moment in time, Germans don’t know what it means to live with limited opportunities. It’s rather enviable, actually. There isn’t an entrenched class system here like in England, so they don’t know what it means to be on the bottom even in an economic structure. And women are not considered the low end of the social heap here. Germans can choose to identify with the poor or with outcasts of various sorts, but it’s a choice. They can drop that shitty end of the stick anytime they want. This is part of why I think Germans can't sing the blues.

Sadly, my opportunities are a lot more limited. Yes, having good English and being articulate does give me a freedom that some immigrant Asian-Americans may envy, but being Asian and a woman is definitely a handicap if you want to be taken seriously as a writer or director. It's nearly impossible to get past the gatekeepers. You’re constantly fighting cultural stereotypes that relegate you to a tiny dusty unobtrusive corner of the playing field. 

What’s interesting is realizing how much I am defined by this, like a painting created from negative space. My whole life, I’ve resisted stereotypes about my gender and ethnicity: I’m not a math whiz or a model minority or an immigrant or subservient or kawaii. But without these expectations to oppose, I have much less of a defining edge. I know what I’m not, but I’m not sure what I am.

It’s also interesting that I find myself a bit on the opposite end of my stance in America. Back in New York, the great majority of Asian-Americans in the arts are second generation and college educated. Most of them have only been in Asia a few times. Most of them barely speak the language. I’m different in that I do have language skills and my mother is a barely educated immigrant from a rural area. So in New York, I’m often bringing attention to working-class immigrant Asian-America. But here in Berlin, the general stereotype is that Asians work in restaurants and nail salons and speak very bad German and no English. Being Little Miss Mary, I find myself reminding everyone that the model minority is real and I’m (sort of) it. 

But in Berlin, "second generation" and  "model minority" are really foreign concepts. Am I Asian? Am I American? How can I be both? I suppose maybe liminality is what this rambling article is ultimately about. Not to toss a high-faluting five syllable word around, but liminality is such an interesting idea in terms of mixed ethnicities and diasporas. 

The idea was first applied by an anthropologist in the early 1900s to the middle state of rituals. Now it’s also applied to societies and history and individuals. It’s the state of being between things. It’s the moment when something is being dissolved and something else is being created. The anthropologist Victor Turner argues that liminality is a state of great tension that can’t remain for too long. That might be obvious but it’s an important thought. Another interesting thought is the liminal being, a creature between two different states. In fiction, that would include shape shifters, tricksters, and cyborgs. And in reality? Teenagers, transsexuals, people of mixed cultures. 

We’re the people at the threshold. We are the future. Everyone else just has to get used to it. All that racist hostility in America? Howls of a dying beast. It's inevitable that one day, everyone will be of mixed cultures and race will be totally moot. Until then, my mutant powers of invisibility seem to have developed a weird and interesting tangent here in Berlin. I wonder if there's any use for it.