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They're Not Actors, But They're Playing Themselves

Date: Oct 12, 2012


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Ping Chong, the theatre artist who created the documentary theatre series Undesirable Elements, knew what it felt like to be an outsider even before he was the only Asian student in his high school.

A son of immigrants, he says he "didn't quite understand how to use a fork and knife for a while because it wasn't in my culture." But even within his culture, as a child growing up in Manhattan's Chinatown, he had also felt like an outsider, because he had wanted to be an artist.

Eventually, Chong enlisted other bilingual people he knew who felt like outsiders to tell their own personal stories on the stage. What is extraordinary is what has happened since that first theatrical experiment:  "Twenty years and more than 40 productions later, it's still going," Chong says.

From October 18 to November 4 at La Mama, the Undesirable Elements Festival will mark the 20th anniversary of the series, featuring panel discussions, workshops, and three of the plays being presented by their original cast members.

In Cry for Peace: Voices From The Congo, five refugees, all living now in Syracuse, N.Y., tell the brutal history of their war-torn African country as well as the stories of their own brutalized lives.
"It is an extremely intimate act to give voice to someone's pain," says Mona de Vestal in the show, talking about her work as a medical interpreter.  She could as easily be talking about the show itself.

In Secret Survivors, five adults tell the story of their sexual abuse as children. "It's not easy to share these stories publicly," Raymond Maccani Jr. says during the show. "Through sharing, I believe we can support the healing of others." A therapist has been hired to attend each performance, in case any of the stories trigger traumatic memories among members of the audience.

In  Inside/Out,eight people on stage talk about their disabilities and the prejudice they have had to overcome. "All my life, people have stared at me without my permission,"  says Matthew Joffe, the director of student services at LaGuardia Community College, who was born with a rare condition called Moebius syndrome that immobilizes his face. Having given permission to the audience to stare "certainly has made a difference in my life," Joffe says privately. "It is about finding your voice and finding your center."

All the shows in Undesirable Elements, Chong says, "are about otherness." The title is meant ironically, defiantly; the phrase "undesirable elements" was in common usage in 19th century America. It was employed to describe Irish immigrants in a New York Times article in 1872, for example, and it was applied to Chinese immigrants in a Congressional report in 1877.  Ping Chong & Company's works under that title "are about tolerating voices that are not well-represented in the status quo," he says.

Asked to define the status quo, he responds, "What you see on television."

What distinguishes the documentary theatre of Undesirable Elements from the rest of the burgeoning genre, Chong explains, is that "the real person is up there telling their own real story; it's not filtered through an actor. That's the power of the show. That's the reason for the longevity of the series."

Typically, a local community invites Ping Chong & Company to create one of the pieces, and a local organization recruits the people who are interested in sharing their stories on stage. There are as many as 25 volunteers to start with, and Chong interviews each one. (Sometimes a member of his company is in charge; Secret Survivor was written and directed by Sara Zatz). In selecting a cast, Chong has to consider many thing. He explains,  "1. Is their English understandable? 2. Is their story compelling; does it resonate? 3. Does their story go from personal into more global concerns?" 

Once chosen, Chong interviews the participants at greater length, shapes their stories, and weaves them into a chronological narrative. He emails the text to each individual in order to check for accuracy and make sure there is nothing anyone finds too sensitive to share. The cast members then rehearse reciting their own words.  Finally, sitting in chairs in a semi-circle, the scripts placed on music stands, they present their stories to an audience.

The process has resulted in shows across the nation and around the world: Native Americans in Lawrence, Kansas; young people in Seattle and Atlanta;  performers in Berlin and Tokyo; African-American women from the Hill district of Pittsburgh (the neighborhood that is the setting for much of playwright August Wilson's work). The cast members of Secret Survivors explain their willingness to participate in the project by taking turns reciting lines from Audre Lord's
1978 poem, "A Litany for Survival:"

When we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
nor welcomed.
But when we are silent
we are still afraid.
So it is better to speakā€¦

Jonathan Mandell is a critic and journalist covering theatre for such publications as The Faster Times, Backstage, Playbill and American Theatre. He tweets as @NewYorkTheater.