When I had a tinier body, I once asked my late father, “What causes time?” in the backseat of his car. I can’t peg my age, I can’t peg the horizon or destination. It’s a good question, I remember him saying years before liver cancer killed him. Time is as elastic and short and stretched as we can comprehend. It’s measured by how humans measure age, the way we notice a face gains wrinkles or a blade of grass yellowing and browning, or the lagging legs of your aging cat.
Time is the theme of “Oratorio for the Living Things” by composer Heather Christian. Life’s too short and we’re fighting against an Earth that has been scorching for decades. When Twitter mutuals were urging followers to go see “Oratorio for Living Things,” they meant go experience “Oratorio for Living Things,” Ars Nova’s latest immersive chamber piece with the surround sound of a moving choir and instruments.
In the provided libretto booklet before entering the circular chamber, “Oratorio” promises you “the quantum, the human, the cosmic” and indeed it does as the room soaks in ultraviolet and a chorus that slinks up and down the stairs vocalizing Latin and English. It submerges you for 90 minutes into its individual introspection and collective confessional. It understands our consciousness of time and its tangible fragments are all as whole as oceans, fragmented like pebbles, and tiny like marbles. During a pandemic time where pleasures are delayed or cursed with conditions, such a musical meditation and communion is inviting.
The introductory program notes that Oratorio can be cogitated like a Rorschach Test: “It’s made to engage with you at whatever level you’d like to do so.” Pour through the pages of its booklet and marvel at its aesthetic accomplishment: Latin and English verses paired with each other, text overlapping and vanishing, and text vanishing into blotch and blurs, and Latin encircled by a halo of English in “Memory Harvest 1.”
Through a river of arias and ensemble pieces, “Oratorio” is seeped into your cerebrum.
“Oratorio for Living Things” is playing at the Greenwich House on 27 Barrow Street, New York, NY 10014 through May 15th.
Gong Lum’s Legacy, which titles playwright Charles L. Wright’s world-premiere play, refers to the 1927 Gong Lum v Rice SCOTUS case in which a Chinese Mississippian fought for his American-born daughter to be recognized as “not a member of the colored race” and thus eligible to attend a white school. To a white audience, it may at surface level represent the ugly result of “separate but equal” segregation in education–that would be overruled by the Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954. But within the Asian and Black community, Lum’s case also invokes a textured and complex cautionary tale about the poisonous prize of (conditional) white acceptance. From a Korean storeowner shooting 15-year-old Latasha Harlins in 1991 to the sight of a Hmong cop standing by as a white cop murdered George Floyd, the play carries the currency of long-existing dialogue for the Asian community to confront anti-Blackness and the price of white acceptance.
Lum does not surface as a character in White’s play but rather operates as an offstage spirit. Lum’s fight for his American-born Chinese children to attend an all-white school in Mississippi underscores the racial legalities that threaten the stability of a fictionalized Chinese-Black romance. Situated in the 1920s Mississippi Delta where Jim Crow reigns in the South, a young Black aspiring teacher Lucy Sims (DeShawn White) teaches English to a Chinese store assistant Joe Ting (Hansel Tan). Despite her insistence that she doesn’t want a husband to focus on her degree (much to her brother’s chagrin), their courtship blossoms into a clandestine marriage. But John’s father Charlie (Henry Yuk), the storekeeper, tries to take charge of their fate at the expense of their relationship and his own soul. A friend and advocate of Lum’s mission, Charlie sees Joe and Lucy’s relationship as a threat to what he presumes to be impending white acceptance into white-run education and church spaces.
Veering back and forth from the Sims (Anthony T. Goss is Lucy’s brother Melvin, Alinca Hamilton is Lucy’s friend), Tings, and Joe and Lucy’s courtship, Gong Lum’s Legacy explores both ends of the Black and Asian community on stage, encouraging the audience to not draw equivalences but to discern the parallels and microaggressions passed among interpersonal relationships between two marginalized families. The scale of Chris Cumberbatch wooden-boarded set design–the Chinese-owned storefront dominating the stage while the Sims’s household is tucked smaller to stage left–reflects the tension co-existing with the growing amiability budding between the Sims and Ting. Their opinions and perspectives are sculpted by white supremacy limiting their scope, as illustrated by the recollection of Black church gossip that scrutinizes Lucy’s feelings for Joe, Lucy’s own surprise at Joe’s traumatic immigration experience on the prison of Ellis Island, and Joe’s disbelief at just how far Charlie would meddle in his and Lucy’s happiness. (Chinese women, perhaps deliberately, exist as specters, consigned as offstage souls thought of as docile and submissive creatures to Chinese husbands.) Although Joe’s and Lucy’s romance is the heart of the play, their courtship is not as compelling as the charged conversations they have with their own or the other’s families about said relationship. There, the playwright mines the crucial social and racial atmosphere that could encroach on their relationship.
The play has a uniformly solid cast. Playing a set-in-his-ways elder (who might try to compromise a little) who thinks fitting in is the way to go, Yuk is able to load a line like “White people keep colored down so they can stay on top” and insinuate cold pragmatism, pessimism and moral disgust against the institutional injustice, and yet a venomous adherence to white supremacy all at once. And Goss is a standout for how he adroitly navigates Melvin’s dimensions: his overprotective idea of masculinity (Melvin really harangues Lucy to marry), his charismatic affability (he bonds with Joe over haircuts and fishing), his moral boundaries (even as he assist Charlie at the climax, he allows no grace for Charlie’s misdeeds), and even his perhaps too-generous autopsy on the soul of a frustrating elder at the play’s ending.
Two twists happen: one that only expedites rather than develops the romance, but the second does wonders to confront complications that test the couple. However, on the night I attended, auditory misfires domineered over crucial dialogue. Storm sound effects drowned out, not underscored, crucial Act 2 twists and emotional outbursts. Context washed away in the flood. With a press script in hand and my incidental proximity to stage left, I can only imagine how the rest of the audience that night heeded the betrayal, reveals, and arguments. The climax is pivotal to understanding the white supremacist and xenophobic laws can taint the happiness of a couple like Lucy and Charlie and place the burden on said couple to overcome them.
Gong Lum’s Legacy is playing at the Theatre at St. Clements on 423 W 46th St, New York, NY 10036 until April 24.
So the Time Travel ADHD novella thing is nearly a bust, another archived “partially done novel project” I’ll tell my writing peers about. Not that I won’t return to it. But it will be put off into the Procrastination Pile.
“Lilaca” the play project progressed and evolved the most out of all the projects. Some comedy sketch drafts got finished.
New poems got produced. Old poems got edited.
All in all, I’m fine. This was one of my best Campnanowrimo.