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By HELEN SHAW
It's hardly a surprise when a children's show has a message. Once adults start impersonating the young, there's a mighty temptation to preach about the rewards of kindness or being tidy. But in Ma-Yi Theater Company's production of Lloyd Suh's The Wong Kids in the Secret of the Space Chupacabra GO!, the message isn't in a tidy moral during the final scene. It's in the very existence of the show.
The Wong Kids' story is taken straight from the Young Adult pantheon: Marginalized adolescents discover superpowers, a galactic menace approaches, and supernatural beings lurk throughout an unassuming neighborhood.
Wrapped in the familiarity, though, is something casually radical. Two Asian-American siblings save the universe.
Since 1989, Ma-Yi has been nurturing and producing Asian-American theatre and theatremakers. The company originally focused on Filipino-American artists, then broadened its mission to the Pan Asian-American community in 1998. To make a seemingly simple children's show, Ma-Yi reached out even further, spearheading a collaboration that includes the Ensemble Studio Theater, the Children's Theater Company (CTC) in Minneapolis, and the Great Jones Rep. (New York performances are in the Ellen Stewart Theater at La MaMa.)
The four-year process allowed Suh and director Ralph B. Peña to work with actors and designers in an unusually intimate way. The Wong Kids bears the hallmarks of both a devised piece---physical-theatre invention, playful interaction with the audience---and a densely written text chock full of puns, silliness, and sudden stretches of heartfelt emotion.
Peña, who is also Ma-Yi's artistic director, is still tinkering. This is his first children's show, but he's somewhat haunted by the memory of his company's last attempt at family theatre nearly 15 years ago. "It was a disaster!" he says. "Don't ask! We didn't know what we were doing."
Here, though, Ma-Yi has a partner well versed in youth-oriented work. "Throughout, CTC would come in and give us notes," Peña says. "They kept saying, 'Don't make children's theatre!' Meaning, 'Don't come "down" to the children.'"
Suh has duly pitched the work well above a stereotypical kid level. Listening to the audience, you can hear the swell of adult laughter in one section, then a burble of child giggling in the next. There are broad moments, and there are sly jokes, such as the Yoda-esque, bathrobe-wearing alien-from-next-door who takes breaks from training to flog his own how-to book. The Minnesota premiere at CTC was called "the best theatre event of the 2013 season" by The Minneapolis / Saint Paul Pioneer Press, and the reviewer praised, in particular, the way Suh interlaced adult and child entertainment.
Still, no one's resting on laurels. "Things have been reconceived: We knew moving to New York we wouldn't be trying to replicate Minneapolis," Peña says. "CTC is a big regional house; they have all the bells and whistles. Here we're more judicious. It forces us to be tighter, leaner, more creative. It's been a challenge across the country to put up children's shows with non-white actors. So everything has been designed to travel."
The plan is to take the production---which makes clever use of foam balls, a rolling jungle gym, and puppets---absolutely everywhere.
Clearly, the ambition here isn't simply to create charming sci-fi. There's sweetness in the show, but also a strain of evangelism. Says Peña: "A lot of theatres pay lip service to diversity; they can't admit to their own biases. The Asian American Performers Action Coalition compiled stats for how many Asian-American actors were employed on Broadway and Off Broadway, and it was 3%. My theory is that the Asian face disrupts the traditional American narrative. You would put a black person in A Long Day's Journey Into Night, but you wouldn't put an Asian in that [play.]"
He continues that young audiences have been especially impacted by the play: "This is a new audience for us---fourth graders, fifth graders. They go bananas. In Minneapolis, four Asian kids came. They sat together. There wasn't anyone else there like them. And then there was a moment in the show when the four of them stood up and started dancing. They had never seen faces like theirs as the heroes!"
Peña is clearly overwhelmed. Tears stand in his eyes. It's almost like those four kids saved the universe.
Watch Ma-Yi define "Rainbow Casting" for TDF's Theatre Dictionary
Helen Shaw is a writer based in New York City
Photo by Dan Norman