Academic journal article British and American Studies

"Turning Setbacks into Comebacks": Representing Disability in Ping Chong's Inside/ Out.Voices from the Disability Community

Academic journal article British and American Studies

"Turning Setbacks into Comebacks": Representing Disability in Ping Chong's Inside/ Out.Voices from the Disability Community

Article excerpt

1.Introduction: Ping Chong's Undesirable Elements (1992 -)

From the documentary plays of the Federal Theatre Project in the 30s, to the socially committed work of such companies as El Teatro Campesino, the Free Southern Theater, or the San Francisco Mime Troupe during the civil rights movement, to Anna Deavere Smith's ground-breaking solo performance work on ethno-racial identities in the early 90s, and, more recently, to the national conversation on homosexuality and tolerance sparked by Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project's The Laramie Project Cycle (2000-2009), socially engaged theatre and performance has represented one of the most vibrant and productive strands in the theatre landscape of the United States. Over the past two decades, American theatre has reinforced its relevance as a space for critical reflection addressing some of the most pressing social concerns of our times in a compelling and oftentimes innovative aesthetic language. Among the theatrical forms contributing to this renewed engagement with social and political issues, community-based drama has stood out as a productive space for such explorations. An influential figure of the contemporary American stage ever since the 70s, Ping Chong has created, directed and produced a substantial body of work in a variety of formats, including theatre, performance art, multimedia works, and dance. In 1975, Chong founded his independent theatre company, the Fiji Theatre Company, later renamed 'Ping Chong + Company', whose mission is "to create works of theater and art that explore the intersections of race, culture, history, art, media and technology in the modern world," while also revealing "beauty, precision, and a commitment to social justice" (Ping Chong + Company Website). Resisting any comfortable classification, Chong has been described as a "hyphenated" voice amalgamating a multiplicity of artistic media, genres, styles, and diverse traditions, including "Brecht, Meyerhold, devised theatre, postmodernism, modern dance, Chinese opera, Japanese cinema, [and] multimedia performance" (Frieze 2006: 85). Thematically, Chong's works address various ramifications of the topic of "culture and the other" (Chong 1989-1990: 63) set in multiple temporal and spatial contexts, with a focus on intercultural encounters and the intricate processes of cultural difference and assimilation. Formally, the productions employ a variety of different strategies (video projections, shadow images, puppets, stylized choreography etc.) to achieve compelling visual experiences, relying on defamiliarizing effects.

Critics have traced a significant shift in Chong's career, from the abstract explorations of the themes of identity and otherness in his pre-1990 works, to "the more historically, geographically and biographically stable work" produced in the last three decades (Frieze 2006: 92), a move described by Chong himself as one "from disconnectedness to connectedness" (Chong qtd. in Wehle 2004: 28). Undesirable Elements, Chong's ongoing series of community-based works, illustrates the more overt political engagement and interest in questions of social justice characterizing the second stage of his career. This enhanced concern with socio-political issues - articulated in a more straightforward manner - has found a fertile space in the format of community-based drama.

Famously described by Richard Owen Geer (1993: 28) as "theatre of the people, by the people, and for the people", community-based theatre relies on an "aesthetic of access" (Kuppers 2007: 4) at all the stages of the play development and production process. For Ping Chong and his company, the process starts with a residency of several weeks in a particular community, during which they conduct interviews with potential participants in response to specific issues relevant to their communities. The playwriting team then selects six or seven interviews representing a multiplicity of perspectives on the given community-specific issues, which are scripted and arranged in a chronological structure, as a collage of intersecting testimonials interspersed with relevant historical background about the issues in question. …

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