NYC Theater Review: “Fruiting Bodies” by Sam Chanse

By Timmy Pham

Ma-Yi Theater Company presents Fruiting Bodies, a new play by Sam Chanse at Theatre Row in New York City until May 19.

When an elderly sansei father heads off on a mushroom foraging trip alone, his two hapa daughters are forced to trek into the woods of Bolinas, CA, to find him. Along the way, a Puck-ish boy brings up memories of a missing favorite son while the family fractures along father/child, sister/sister, and husband/wife lines are brought into relief against the forest fog and earthy shrooms.

In Fruiting Bodies, playwright Sam Chanse, director Shelley Butler, and a team of sharp actors are able to bring across a subtle portrayal of Asian American life; one that is grounded in place, history, and a surprising amount of science. At times the background on morel (and other) mushrooms feels like a step into National Geographic, but the underlying themes crept back into my mind in the days after seeing the performance. Chanse is able to weave in new and refreshing nuances of larger overplayed structures throughout: racism as a sansei father questions his ex wife’s new choice of a nisei husband, the daughters revisit their neglect when confronted with their father’s sexist favoritism, an absent son reveals the ways discrimination becomes a structural obstacle both in the political and filial relationship, the Tesla-driving techno-optimist is confronted when her flashy solutions can’t mend fissures, and the angry arty “fuck up” daughter is disenfranchised by the larger systemic forces and doesn’t seem to take care of anyone, including herself.

Fruiting Bodies is a carefully crafted work built on a network of unfair family dynamics, the ever-changing Bay Area, a glimpse into Japanese American experience, and a deep sense of longing and loss. Like mushrooms, the carefully crafted touch points are ubiquitous but only really come into focus when you stop looking.

Tickets are from $32.25 to $42.25 and can be purchased by calling the Telecharge phone number 212-239-6200 or online at www.telecharge.com.

More About Ma-Yi Theatre Company

Founded in 1989 and now celebrating its 29th season, Ma-Yi is a Drama Desk, Obie Award and Lucille Lortel Award-winning, Off-Broadway not-for-profit organization whose primary mission is to develop and produce new and innovative plays by Asian American writers. The Ma-Yi Theater Company website for additional information, www.ma-yitheatre.org. Ma-Yi Theater Company productions have earned 10 Obie Awards, numerous Henry Hewes Award nominations, a Drama Desk nomination for Best Play and the Special Drama Desk Award for “more than two decades of excellence and for nurturing Asian-American voices in stylistically varied and engaging theater.” Ma-Yi Theater is under the leadership of Producing Artistic Director Ralph B. Peña.

***

Timmy Pham was once in a community theater production of King and I where his family were the only Asians. Fake tan and dyed black hair featured prominently. He is grateful for progress in Asian American theatre.

‘Dr. Ken’ Episode Review: “Ken’s Big Audition”

Dr. Ken, Season 2, Episode 22: “Ken’s Big Audition” (season finale)
Original airdate March 31, 2017.

Friday I’m in Love

Ken auditions for a one-episode part in a television show, an opportunity he’s always yearned for.  He bombs his chance, but then he’s offered a regular role, which would require him to leave his position at Welltopia.

Molly gets her acceptance letter from Stanford, and Allison’s not quite as ready for the news as one might expect.  Damona and Pat seem to be in a good place in their relationship, but Pat’s ex-wife (in the form of Nia Vardalos) shows up with an interest in giving things a second try.

Boys Don’t Cry

The second half of the episode slides into most of what I find disappointing in Dr.Ken.  Secondary plots get resolved with no real development, usually with a heartfelt monologue ending with a hug.  Ken Jeong takes a good idea and then drives it off a cliff while wearing a clown nose.  Someone does a cameo (this time it’s Seth Rogen) contributing nothing to the story.  The studio audience laughs too hard at something not that funny or cheers for characters as if they’re real-life people.

Just Like Heaven

On the other hand, the first half of this movie is kind of an amazing surprise.  Every moment leading up to Ken’s audition is really funny in all of Ken Jeong’s best ways.  His gift for physical humor had me laughing aloud in a way I haven’t all season.  The dialogue-less moment where he takes the phone call from the casting director and tries to shoo his family out of the kitchen is really well done, and his scenes in the examination room, first with Clark and then with Clark and Damona are just about perfect.  It’s unusual in a half-hour sitcom for the blocking to be funny, but it is in these scenes.

Once again, it’s the Pat-Damona stuff that gives the show its credibility.  Yeah, I can’t figure it out either, but it works.

I’m normally not a fan of meta-dialogue in a fictional series, but there are a few deliberate moments here that I found amusing, as when D. K. talks about TV characters with accents, or when the TV guy says something about the network wanting more diversity.  It’s pretty cute here.

Let’s Go to Bed

And that’s it for season two.  We end on a cliffhanger very similar to the cliffhanger ending the first season, only the vibe for a possible next season feels a lot less questionable.  I would have set the odds at about 50-50 a year ago, but I’d go 2-1 in favor of a renewal for next season.  This finale is an apt way to put this show to bed for the hiatus: at its best, it’s unusually laugh-aloud funny; at its worst, it’s difficult to watch.  3 audition scripts out of 5.

‘Dr. Ken’ Episode Review: “Ken’s Banquet Snub”

Dr. Ken, Season 2, Episode 3: “Ken’s Banquet Snub”
Original airdate October 7, 2016.

dr_ken_s02e03-7Doctor, doctor, gimme the news.
Pat is asked to host the Welltopia banquet this year, instead of Ken, who has done the honors for the past five years.  Allison counsels him to “take the high road” and allow someone else to have the spotlight for a change.  Damona and Clark reconsider their relationship instincts and briefly swap strategies, Damona holding her tongue in check with her boyfriend, and Clark speaking his peeves with his boyfriend.  Dave has an admirer in the girl next door, who has a creepy way of hanging around.

Prognosis negative.
This episode is all over the place, and the only thing holding it together is the well-established chemistry of the characters.  Each of the plots is thin and uninteresting, although the A story had some potential.  Tapping into Pat’s continued confusion over his now-ended relationship with Damona can pay off, not to mention what could be some remorse by Ken over what might have been a career in standup comedy.  The resolving scene in Ken’s car is a good effort, but it lacks any of the heft it shoots for with these characters.  It’s also becoming clear that the writers don’t know what to do with Dave, Molly, and D.K. at home.

dr_ken_s02e03-4I’m detecting a pulse.
Pat takes a well-aimed shot at Ken Park the doctor and Ken Jeong the actor when he says, “I guess maybe they wanted more a thinking man’s comedy, and less desparate man’s comedy.  You know, more cerebral humor and less of the rubber-faced clowning that is your trademark.”  It’s one of the few memorable lines.  Clark and Damona have a cute scene where they do some awkward mugging while they await Ken’s reaction to finding out that Pat’s taken his gig.  In fact, Damona and Clark are really the highlight this week: their relationship is turning into quite a nice friendship.

Refills: 20.
The nice thing about an episode like this is that, unlike the vibe last season, it doesn’t feel like it’s bombing the audition.  A bad-to-mediocre week is just a stone in the road now, and there’s no reason to get depressed about it, the way I might have last year.  We’ve got 20ish more to go, so let’s get some bed rest and come back in a week.  2 bedpans out of 5.

Simon Tam of The Slants: “I am not the floodgate of racism that some think I am.”

8A-2015-08-04-TheSlants2015I am not the floodgate of racism that some think I am.

I am not the Pandora’s Box of hate speech that some afraid I’ve turned into.

I am an anti-racist, social justice activist who has been battling in the trenches. My weapon is a bass guitar, not a bullet. I believe in creating meaningful conversation, not shutting down people, especially those with opposing views.

I started an Asian American band called The Slants. These days, we’re probably more known for fighting the government than for fighting stereotypes. But in either case, we’re challenging systemic racism.

In what seemed like a century ago, we filed a simple application for a trademark registration but it turned into an unimaginable legal debacle that has spanned six years, thousands of pages of argument, when the Trademark Office decided that the band name was a racial slur. They said that my intention didn’t matter: my ethnicity provided the context for the common, everyday word to become a racial slur. The logic used by the Trademark Office is troubling: anyone may register a trademark for “Slant” except Asians. We are too Asian. But we aren’t afraid to fire back.

Our justice work has been called empowering, racist, important, shameful. I’ve received death threats from white supremacists and encouragement from activists of all stripes. I’ve thrown into the media spotlight to have my intentions scrutinized under a microscope. I’ve heard more false stories, assumptions, and misquotes about me than I can count.

Most recently, and what has stung the most, was that I received accusations from several Asian American legal groups. There’s a guest blog on Angry Asian Man, which explains the ethical problems that I have with their approach here.

The National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA), the South Asian Bar Association of DC (SABA-DC), and Korematsu Center of Seattle University filed a legal brief in full support of the Trademark Office’s action.They believed that it was important to do so because our case “may affect the power of the government to deny or cancel trademarks that contain disparaging content,” which could give a “federal stamp of approval” for said behavior or content.

In other words, it came from a position of fear. It was an ends-justify-the-means, broadly sweeping process that meant some people along the way had to get hurt. In this case, those targets included my band, as well as all activists, artists, nonprofits, and businesses that engage in reapproriation as a method for creating social change. They believe that my case may open the floodgate of hate speech.

However, is it worth suppressing the voices of the oppressed in fear of losing one avenue for protecting against disparaging trademark registrations? Is the solution for hate speech censorship? No, the solution is more speech. Better speech.

The American Civil Liberties Union writes, “Free speech rights are indivisible. Restricting the speech of one group or individual jeopardizes everyone’s rights because the same laws or regulations used to silence bigots can be used to silence you. Conversely, laws that defend free speech for bigots can be used to defend the rights of civil rights workers, anti-war protesters, lesbian and gay activists and others fighting for justice.”

By upholding the law the Trademark Office is using to oppose The Slants (and all trademarks that on their surface look to be disparaging), it further equips hate groups to dismantle the work of groups like the NAACP, since “colored people” can be considered a disparaging term. It also puts the sole power of determining what is and isn’t offensive in the hands of trademark attorneys who aren’t trained in cultural competency, equitable practices, or the nuances of poetry, irony, reappropriation, or linguistic changes.

Those same attorneys demand, “prove to be that you are not offensive” but are allowed to dismiss any evidence that they disagree with. In my case, that meant dismissing over 2,000 pages of evidence, including national surveys and linguistics experts testifying. It meant that they took the words of racist wiki-websites over those of internment camp survivors, activists, and community leaders.

This law is subjectively and disproportionately applied.

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