Review: WAZU – not just a bad hair day (2002)

Completed as a reviewing assignment while studying away at the Trinity/La MaMa Performing Arts Program in New York City in 2002

SLANT, a performance trio with Rick Ebihara, Wayland Quintero and Perry Yung, created and presented WAZU – not just a bad hair day at the La MaMa E.T.C. Annex between September 12th and 29th, 2002. A piece created about the trio’s trip to the Yunnan Province of China last year, it began as comic and almost interactive.

From the back of the theatre, Rick Ebihara came catapulting down the aisle, suitcase in tow, shouting back up to their lighting designer, Tom, who was working the lights from the back of the theatre. Once down all the stairs and centre stage, Rick began to haphazardly introduce the show, asking for prompts from Tom about exactly what the show was.

What followed was a clever montage depicting their frenzied journeys to the airport. Two shafts of light came up on Rick and Perry, doing Yoga, and showed the two embarking upon their respective modes of transportation: Rick in the cab, swerving this way and that, and Perry on the subway, lurching this way and that. All this was done with absolutely no props, other than very pedestrian costume and the suitcases they had in tow. They visually worked together in a montage of distinct yet complementary movement. The performers themselves produced all of the sound effects: the cell phones, the screeching tires, the rumbling of the subway, the running feet. The sound effects were wholly unique to each character’s journey, together creating a rhythmic counterpoint which accelerated dizzyingly as they finally arrived at the airport.

Upon arrival, they realised they were short one: Wayland. In the background, behind the middle of three strips of scrim, was a shadow puppet of a man and a woman on a bed, the bed lurching about – accompanied by the requisite orgasmic noises. Eventually, as the bed falls away, Wayland emerges from behind the scrim and joins his partners.

It is at this point that the first musical number of the night is performed: the strip search song. Using the melody of the hymn, The Lord of the Dance, the trio sing of “stripping for the USA”, singing and moving in canon. At this point, as in the earlier montage of their going to the airport, Perry painfully falls out of time, breaking the cohesion. It proved distracting and disappointing, and remained a flaw in Perry’s performance throughout the show.

They finally board the plane and sing a capella about going to Little Rock. Nonetheless, their plane is not bound for Little Rock. They are instead going to China. It seems that there is a weakness in the plot at this point because, though the entire sequence is comical and amusing, it feels like an unnecessary breaking of the show’s rhythm and rules. Perhaps even more unbelievably, the trio decide that they will not land at the plane’s destination, but rather jump out of the plane via parachute. Their descent is creatively shown with shadow puppets, and their landing is enacted by each of the three scrim strips being brought up one by one as each performer slid upstage. Once again wayward, Wayland has a harder time at landing, and swings from a rope before finally landing on the Chinese terrain. The trio showed a brilliant ability to work with the space and use it innovatively, completely to their advantage.

The three immediately recreate the untamed nature of their new wild Chinese surroundings, producing noises resembling large wild cats, monkeys, and other creatures. Rick then spots a source of spring water, and begs his comrades to join him in drinking from it. Despite being warned against it by Wayland, Perry and Rick both drink from the water, prompting Wayland to sing the rock-inspired “Don’t Drink the Water in a Foreign Land”. Wayland actually mans a sound board on stage, playing a miniature keyboard and controlling sound effects during the song. As he sings, the two are cast in red light, and begin the “diarrhoea dance”. Their only prop is some toilet paper that Wayland produces from his bag, which is thrown back and forth between the two stricken travelers, unravelling mid-air and adding quite a graceful quality to the number.

There is a strange transition at this point. Suddenly, there is a woman (in puppet form), dressed in red and with eyes that glowed red at moments when it seemed she was seducing or hypnotising onlookers. Miniatures of Rick and Perry emerge, for reasons which also seem unclear. Miniatures of the two, puppets manned by the real Rick and Perry, serve to emphasise the size of this mysterious woman whose identity is never revealed. Perplexingly, however, in a later scene she and Rick are the same size. What is clear is that she hopelessly smites the men, as some embodiment of desire, temptation, evil, greed, or some combination of the above.

Immediately after, Perry stumbles upon Wayland, who is hidden beneath a monkey mask and chained. In the talkback after the show, they revealed that they chose to do this because they had seen an animal brutally tied up during the journey, but once again the reason for its presentation in the show was not clear.

Following this, Rick and the mystical woman in red re-encounter each other, and – amazingly – the two go to bed together in a simultaneously disturbing and hilarious “love” scene. She seduces Rich: her eyes glow red, and he immediately responds like one brainwashed. Rick then sets up what seems to be a tourist kiosk mid-stage right, announcing the exhibition of all things “traditional and indigenous” from the Yunnan Province. He acts as a kind of tour guide, describing what is happening and encouraging audience members to become cultural consumers and purchase any tapes and memorabilia “in the lobby”. Perry and Wayland, meanwhile, play the dragon and the monkey, which begin a ritualistic form of dance-like combat.

The show then leaps forward two months, with the three now back in America and about to perform a ritualistic hair dance that they learned while in the Yunnan Province. They are dressed in suits, with long black wigs. They introduce this performance as they did the show at large, sharing with the audience that they had been to the Yunnan province, and also share why they named the show as they did. In that region of China, the word “zu” denotes a minority group. The prefix “wa” refers to the people of Burmese and Chinese ancestry in the Province. Hence, they are called the Wazu. After this introduction, they begin their performance while a large pair of eyes at the back of the stage glow red, reminding us of the seduction Rick experienced in the Province.

A video of the three on their trip starts, and they begin arguing. The audience discovers that the group harbours some guilt about potentially exploiting the Wazu people. As the video continues, showing the Wazu performing their hair dance, the three scatter off stage arguing. The audience then can turn their attention fully to the video, showing the SLANT group interacting with the Wazu, exchanging their knowledge and cultures, and finding their way around the Yunnan. The three then return to the stage, and begin playing a gentle piece of music, flavoured with both Western and Asian influences, as the video continues.

The last 10 minutes of Wazu is dramatically different from the rest of the show. Suddenly, the performers create a tremendously sombre, reverent and reflective environment as it lets us, the audience, take in their experiences with the Wazu. There is no commentary, no titling or descriptions on the video, simply the audience’s interaction with the visual images being presented to us, and the auditory experience of listening to the music being played by SLANT. It is clear in the video the kind of meaning this experience must have had for the members of SLANT. It is clear from the video how unstable their ethnic identity must be as Asian Americans.

One of the group members shared in the post-performance talkback that they are American men in Asian bodies, and their sensibilities are clearly Western and alien in the Yunnan environment. As with most immigrants, and particularly the descendants of immigrants, there is a sense of homelessness regardless of where they finally settle. The SLANT group also very explicitly sensitises the audience to the Western palate for consumption of the cultural other, of our fetishisation of Asian and non-Western culture. They effectively did this by winning the audience over through establishing themselves as pampered Westerners and New Yorkers with very little preparation for negotiating a non-Western environment. The audience was with them through their journey, identifying with their ignorance and the temptations of wanting to consume the culture they were experiencing. In the end, they also maintain respect and care for the audience not by judging, criticising or preaching to the audience, but gently showing us what they learned and experienced, and trusting us to come to the enlightened conclusions on our own.

Given how much non-Western culture, religion and sensibility has been “discovered” by and is infiltrating the West, it is a timely and compelling message. It was one, I think, very clearly heard by the audience because of SLANT’s choice to entertain and challenge the audience in a way that allowed us to feel comfortable and secure, and to consider something well outside of our daily reality.

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