nytheatre.com review by Robin Rothstein
June 15, 2007
The Pregones Theater is an intimate gem of a space in the Bronx that possesses the kind of warmth and class that portends the quality of the work you are likely to see there. Though the theatre still has some renovating ahead, the welcoming vibe that this venue already exudes would make most downtown theatre companies salivate. It is in this gracious environment that Undesirable Elements, an appealing theatrical work, took up residence last week as part of the first National Asian American Theater Festival.
Written and directed by Ping Chong and Sara Michelle Zatz in collaboration with the performers, and produced by New York City-based Ping Chong & Company, Undesirable Elements is, according to production notes, "an ongoing series of community-specific oral history theater works examining the lives of people born in one culture, but currently living in another, either by choice or circumstance." Somewhat reminiscent of The Exonerated in its use of interview-based material and its concert-reading performance style, this incarnation of Undesirable Elements, a series that has been in existence since 1992, presents the life stories of six Asian Americans whose backgrounds include Afghan, Korean, Indian, Filipino, Chinese, and Tongan. Undesirable Elements is structured within a chronological context, beginning with the six performers briefly pointing up relevant moments in immigrant history in America, followed by the recounting of their own varied personal histories and struggles as Asian Americans through to present day. The performers deliver their narratives in an honest, plain-speaking style, and each story is captivating from nearly start to finish, the exception being a brief section where the performers express what they like most about the countries of their heritage. This portion of the piece, which feels like a lingering vestige of their creative process, comes across as flat and inorganic compared to the rest of the piece; however this is only a small flaw.
Chong masterfully directs his dynamic sextet with empathy and humor, weaving their individual narratives throughout and showing how feelings of loneliness and displacement among very different people paradoxically create a common bond. Synchronous clapping at specific moments propels the piece forward from one section to the next, and the simple, elegant lighting by Brant Thomas Murray facilitates a feeling of intimacy. The staging is also smart, with the performers at times moving in a circle to new seats while music plays in the background. Yet in this version of musical chairs none of the performers is ever left without a place after the music stops, which seems to be the point—we all indeed have a meaningful and essential place in the world, we just have to discover it.
It is a shame that Undesirable Elements had such a limited presentation, as there are many people, Asian American and otherwise, who would likely enjoy and connect with this piece, as did this third-generation American of Eastern European descent. Hopefully, someone like Alan Buchman of Culture Project, or a similar entity, will also connect with Undesirable Elements and give it the run and exposure it deserves.