|Philip Nolen, Eric Hissom, Brad DePlanche|
In a misguided attempt at making light of racist stereotypes, Mark Brown's "China: The Whole Enchilada" ends up relying on racist jokes for laughs.
By REESE THOMPSON
It would probably be wrong to compare Mark Brown’s musical, "China: the Whole Enchilada," with another musical currently playing in New York, "South Pacific." But setting aside the fact that "South Pacific" is one of the greatest musicals of all time, and "China: the Whole Enchilada" is in serious competition for being the worst thing I’ve ever seen on a New York stage, there are indeed similarities. Not many. But some.
Both shows attempt to address the ignorance that leads to xenophobia by way of shedding light on Asian culture. Both shows portray a version of American self-centeredness. And both shows are terribly naïve in their own ways. "South Pacific," obviously, has an excuse for being dated. And whereas "South Pacific" benefits from great songs, a fabulous score, and a hero and heroine who display two different kinds of courage, "China: the Whole Enchilada" is a minstrel show. The fact that it features an all white male cast and plays very much like vaudeville does not help its case either.
|CHINA: THE WHOLE ENCHILADA|
|Written by: Mark Brown.|
Directed by: Jim Helsinger.
Cast: Philip Nolen, Eric Hissom, Brad DePlanche.
Music by: Mark Brown.
Costumes by: Lisa Zinni.
Production stage manager: Kat West.
Scenic Consultants: Joseph Fletcher, Thu Nguyen.
Props Master: Melissa A. Nathan.
Musical Arrangements and additional music by: Paul Mirkovich.
Related links: Official site
|Michael Schimmel Center For The Arts|
Pace University, Spruce Street between Park Row and Gold Street
Fringe Festival 2008, Aug. 8-24, 2008
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The premise of the show can be summed up like this: three white guys are putting on a show about the history of China, and each of them is supposed to represent a prevailing misconception. The three characters are really all the same character, and what passes as dramatic conflict strikes me as disingenuous. A typical argument goes like this:
Brad: Brr. There’s a nip in the air and it’s not me.
Philip: Brad, Brad. Nips are Japs.
Brad: I thought Nips were Chinese.
Philip: No. Nip is short for Nippon. It means Jap in Japanese. Nippon-nips. Japan-Japs.
There are so many things wrong with this exchange I don’t know where to begin. I’m still debating whether I’m more offended by the casual use of the word, “Nips” by a couple of middle-aged white guys dressed in silk brocade, or by the bad exposition. And while I’m always grateful to learn the origin of racial slurs, I have a problem when explanation reads as justification.
Early in the show, Brad sings, “I know you might be leery/ ’cause I’m a Chink in the theory.” This is problematic for a show in 2008, legitimized by the NY Fringe Festival.
|Philip Nolen and Brad DePlanche as Ming the Merciless and Fu Manchu|| |
That it also seems aware of its potential to offend is apparent in its opening number, "Disclaimer," which makes the offensiveness factor arguably worse:
Eric: We won’t pretend we’re Chinese
Philip: We won’t be walking on our knees
Eric and Philip: We won’t switch our “L’s” and “R’s”
And pretend that we have SARS.
In fact, they do all of these things but the last over the course of the show. The chorus, rather than providing the show with a reason for existing, instead underlines the pointlessness of the entire venture:
All: We’re just three Caucasians
With a fascination
With that new sens-Asian
The Chinese Nation
Yes, we’re three Caucasians…
And finally, as a coda to the number, Eric claims, “There. Now no one will be offended.” Not only might this be the funniest line in the show, but it also brings to mind the oft-heard preface: "I don’t mean to sound racist but…" which is invariably followed by something which indeed sounds racist. Such superficial attempts at a preemptive strike against the scrooge we call political correctness can only work if sincerity and intention are convincing.
The humor in Mark Brown’s musical is neither politically correct nor convincing. That it seems to go out of its way to balance the dark history it portrays of warlords, famine, misogyny and communism by making a point of reminding us of China’s many many contributions to society is not only wildly condescending but misses its mark by a mile. We’re told that China is not only the birthplace of malaria (that the Chinese also invented a cure for it is only vaguely suggested), but that thanks to the Chinese we now have the kite, spaghetti, and toilet paper. Way to go China! It’s the kind of trivia-laden, surface-skimming history that tourists get from glossy-pictured travel handbooks. Merely mentioning “race” or “human rights violations,” for example, is different from actually creating a piece about those things. And while the broad strokes with which Mr. Brown paints Chinese culture leaves me uneasy, it’s only small consolation that he also paints his Caucasian characters with equally broad strokes. Indeed, his characters are not characters at all but singing, dancing attitudes.
| ||“There. Now no one will be offended.” Not only might this be the funniest line in the show, but it also brings to mind the oft-heard preface: "I don’t mean to sound racist but…" which is invariably followed by something which indeed sounds racist.|
This is not meant to throw cold water on Mr. Brown’s character. I believe that he believes his intentions are good. He is after all the parent of a Chinese girl that he and his wife adopted. So it’s no surprise that the number where he addresses foot binding of small girls (the best in the show) is where the show felt most convincing. The problem, I think, is that his talent heavily favors an irreverent, pun-heavy, Abbot and Costello-type banter. His attempts at story, character, rhythm, and basic exposition (the entire show is exposition) falls very flat, as when he seems to genuinely admire some of the teachings of Laozi and Confucius. But it’s the schoolyard "Confucius say" jokes that we remember, and which get the most air-time. It’s the jokes that pay off the quickest, and so it’s the jokes that must carry the show. Even if it is the kind of buck-tooth, slanty-eye, General Tsao, good-at-math, kung-fu-fighter jokiness that even if you find that sort of thing amusing gets a bit old after the first half hour.
I cannot imagine a 100 minute show about the history of Black people in America that makes fast and easy use of language associating Blacks with watermelons, fried chicken, and banana skirts, featuring an all-white cast, playing at the Fringe Festival and getting as many laughs. Whether we’re laughing at the three stupid white guys or at the chink/nip jokes is far too ambiguous to determine. And the set piece about the history of America’s “yellow peril” scare doesn’t quite have the conviction of its more tasteless parts. I suppose I could “lighten up” because, after all, it’s “just a joke,” and perhaps I would if the stereotyping weren’t the least offensive thing about the show.
|Eric Hissom, Philip Nolen, Brad DePlanche|| |
Indeed, the most offensive thing about this show is that it’s bad. It’s a bad representation of a downtown theater scene that can be smart, fearless, and engaging theater that is done by those who love theater, and who have something to say. "China: the Whole Enchilada" seems to have put more energy into its slick website, its promotional campaign, and its Mao buttons, and less energy where it needed it the most. Complete with lounge songs, gangsta rap, gospel numbers, a poorly conceived take-off of James Bond, and Benny Hill transition music, "China: the Whole Enchilada" is a variety show that lacks the variety of character arc that might have kept the second half from sagging. Not only is it poorly researched, but much of the music isn’t even original. And its final half-baked epiphany, put in the mouth of Brad, who is described as always “confusing the difference between Chinese and Japanese,” is the kind of self-congratulating realization that’s better left to the privacy of one’s thoughts, and not on stage.
This was unfortunate for the talented performers, Brad DePlanche, Eric Hissom, and Philip Nolen, who seemed intent on combating the flimsiness of the material by applying loads of energy. But if watching three actors audition for the part of the wacky neighbor in a 80s sitcom can be called painful, at 100 minutes it is agonizing.
| ||It’s the jokes that pay off the quickest, and so it’s the jokes that must carry the show. Even if it is the kind of buck-tooth, slanty-eye, General Tsao, good-at-math, kung-fu-fighter jokiness that even if you find that sort of thing amusing gets a bit old after the first half hour.|
Obviously the Beijing Olympics has much to do with why this show claims to be relevant. And indeed the Chinese government has a lot to answer for in terms of its freedoms, its human rights violations, Tibet, and Taiwan, as well as its widespread corruption and censorship. But in the cold war of Olympic competition, where a daily tally of medals sets the United States in direct competition with China, belittling the history and culture of an entire country is only one form of cheerleading.
|AUGUST 17, 2008|
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