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The sly politics of the puppet musical Made in China
The first moment of Made In China twists our expectations. This puppet musical from the performance troupe Wakka Wakka, which is now playing at 59E59, opens with a massive panda puppet thoughtfully chewing bamboo. It's incredibly cute, and it suggests a charming little show about Eastern culture.
But when the panda opens its mouth, a blast of announcements comes flying out. We hear recordings of people saying "China" and making pithy statements, as though the fuzzy bear has swallowed every newscaster in North America. It's startling, funny, and little disturbing – and that's not a bad description of the entire show.
The story follows a lonely American woman named Mary who finds a disturbing letter tucked inside a box of Christmas decorations. It's from a Chinese worker who claims to be trapped in a hellish factory and begs whichever American gets the note to send help. This launches a magical adventure in which Mary – and her neighbor Eddie, a Chinese immigrant – get whisked to China. Before they return home, they escape from a terrible prison, learn they can fly, outrun a dragon, and sing several catchy tunes. (The score is by Yan Li, who was born in China and now lives in Canada.)
Mary and Eddie also fall in love, which is no small thing. "I don't even feel like our show is really a political show," says Gwendolyn Warnock, who has created and directed the piece with fellow Wakka Wakka co-founder Kirjan Waage. "It's a love story that has political themes in it."
There's certainly a political theme inside the romance. As Warnock notes, it's important that Mary is American and Eddie was born in China. "The love story is also the idea of this relationship between the two countries," she says. "We're so intertwined that we need each other."
The disturbing note in Mary's package packs a political punch as well. It underscores that every time we buy something that was made in China, we may be supporting the country's well-documented problems with inhumane labor. That's why, shortly after she reads it, Mary is serenaded by every Chinese-made product in her home, from her plunger to her phone. The point is that her stuff is also our stuff.
"We're trying to explore Mary's contact with human rights and what any of us have to do with that on this side of the world," Warnock says.
"But we don't want to moralize," Waage adds. "We don't want to point any fingers. It feels out of place, especially since the new administration will have views on China that we absolutely don't share. But that said, there are still important issues to talk about."
Wakka Wakka began developing this show after traveling to China for an arts festival. While there, they had remarkable experiences with artists and audience members, but they also had staggering logistical headaches. "We've been around to festivals in other countries, and we've had all kinds of challenges, but nothing compared to China," Waage says. "It was like a completely different planet almost."
Plus, while they were visiting the Forbidden City in Beijing, the creators saw undercover police officers grab a Chinese woman and drag her away. "She was pleading and begging," Warnock recalls. "I have no idea what she did, but you just go, 'Oh my gosh, this woman was really afraid."
With a catch in his voice, Waage adds, "I've never seen anything like that. It was frightening. Really frightening. She was begging for her life. On her knees. Crying."
But as Westerners – and especially as Americans – what do we do with experiences like that? As that singing plunger reminds us, China and America are linked in thousands of ways.
Made in America doesn't pretend to have an answer, but through its whimsy and humor, it's trying to clarify the problem. "One of the things we're exploring is the ability to have a voice," Warnock says. "What are you going to do with the things you hear about? How are you going to know what information to trust, and what are you going to do with it?"
Photos by Heidi Bohnenkamp. Top photo: Mary and Eddie escape a dragon.
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