Critics clueless about emergent American sensibility
By John Kuo Wei Tchen | The Maynard Institute
Many of the reviews of the new Broadway production of Flower Drum Song have been scathing and patronizing. Audiences, in sharp contrast, have been giving performances standing ovations. Are Asian Pacific American and non-APA American tri-staters unwittingly plopping down c-notes for a bad play? Whats going on?
Having seen the performance twice and studied the film, the play and the original novel, its clear to me most reviewers do not get why the new version is entertaining and important. Even more telling is the manner in which reviewers express their displeasure, revealing deeper issues about their own ideas about APAs.
As U.S. demographics shift dramatically especially in our metropolitan regions new immigrants bring different sensibilities and insights about the United States. Yet, New York Broadway critics remain mired in dated frames of reference and risk becoming irrelevant to these new urban citizens.
Crass and Clueless
Clive Barnes, of the Murdoch-owned New York Post, waxed nostalgic for the old Fields, Rodgers and Hammerstein version of Flower Drum Song a playful and earnest production with a PG striptease. What the past half century of musical theater has taught us, states Barnes, is that even minor Rodgers and Hammerstein is pretty damn good. With faint praise he damns Hwangs efforts to complicate the play and rework the films dated stereotypes. This time, distinguished Chinese American playwright David Henry Hwang provided a new book, the old one having been deemed politically incorrect, writes Barnes.
Its clear to me most reviewers do not get why the new version is entertaining and important.
Loving the role of the stripper, Barnes then ends his brief, dismissive review with another jibe: The best performance is given by Sandra Allen, as a Chinese American chorine determined to get the best out of life and the show. She also gets to sing the great little number, I Enjoy Being a Girl. Girl? Is that politically correct? Oh well.
Howard Kissel of the Daily News didnt have sex but food on his mind. Also preferring the Rodgers and Hammerstein version, Kissels review was headlined: Its a Full-Coarse Chinese Musical: Drum is More Chop Suey than Fine Cantonese. Likening Hwangs version to the 80s fad of Szechuan and Hunan cuisines, he calls Flower Drum Song a spicier but ultimately coarser treatment of Chinese immigrants in San Francisco. In contrast to Barnes, Kissel worries about stereotyping (while unconsciously reinforcing stereotypes in his review) and is concerned that this musical not offend.
Yet like Barnes, he misses Hwangs parody. Kissel described the Club Chop Suey as less coy, but more vulgar and, I suspect, no less stereotyped than the original. Recalling Chinese jugglers who once frequented U.S. stages, as this brief summary suggests, Hwang has set a lot of dishes spinning. And in the end, Kissel declares his allegiance to the melting pot theme that underscores the original.
Barnes and Kissel are grasping for recognizable references to understand what is going on. And like comfort food when feeling woozy, they return to what is familiar: Chinese restaurants, acrobats, striptease and the Rodgers and Hammerstein version.
Finally, but most consequentially, Ben Brantley of the New York Times wrote a cutting review, in his typically acid-tongued fashion always entertaining with his self-aware hyperbolic wordplay. Headlined New Coat of Paint for an Old Pagoda, Brantley begins with excoriating the makeover of the winsome heroine Mei-Li. Never mind that in shedding her own passivity and stock picturesqueness she has also given up all evidence of a personality to call her own. The same can be said of most of what surrounds her onstage.
In more clever and sophisticated fashion, Brantley reiterates the nostalgia of his less articulate colleagues. Certainly you can feel the honorable intentions
but equally evident is the strain in transforming cute and cozy ethnic types from the Broadway production of 1958 into a set of positive Asian role models that might be introduced into a public school presentation in 2002. (Note the sly usage of honorable here.) What keepers of the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon deem as second-tier is sacrosanct nonetheless. You can sense [Hwangs] residual affection for the show in his reworking of it, as if he were trying to present a stuffed animal from his childhood as a living beast. Ouch!
Brantley closes with indignation appealing to liberal, anti-pop culture readers in the final paragraph, intended as a kiss of death. He writes There is also, by the way, another new character: Harvard (Allen Liu), a swishy gay costume designer and a font of the pastel humor found on sitcoms like Will and Grace. Mr. Hwang has said that in researching this show, I began to realize that one generations breakthroughs often become the next generations stereotypes. Evidently, some breakthroughs turn into stereotypes faster than others. Here Brantley too misses badly.
Chinatown, C.Y. Lee & D.H. Hwang
Certainly David Henry Hwangs book and Robert Longbottoms production is not above criticism. But Im stunned by how these reviewers have missed the point and reacted with knee-jerk stereotypes in lieu of more substantial criticism. Richard Zoglin of Time (Oct. 28) is right to note the irony of a gauntlet of critics suddenly quite protective of a musical they never much liked in the first place.
Yet the uneasy-punning and worries about being politically correct also betray a deeper issue. Alan Gombergs printed New York Times letter to the editor (Sept. 22) about Flower Drum Song and stereotypes mistakenly but honestly circles the problem. I am not Asian, so I may not be the best judge, but I have read the original [Rodgers and Hammerstein] book and I dont see this.
I dont believe being Asian necessarily qualifies one to judge stereotypes, but experiencing the power of stereotyping on ones life and knowing something about its history certainly does. Ones point of view and the capacity to empathize make all the difference.
C. Y. Lees original 1957 best-selling novel spotlighted the everyday dilemmas of an elite Chinatown family exempted from the Chinese Exclusion Laws. Despite the insularity of the family comedic-drama, the backdrop of Chinatown is omnipresent. Under the exempted student category, Lee was able to enter the United States, studying at Columbia University and then the Yale School of Drama. His social status distinguished him from the community of laborers and merchants. Though he was not of Chinatown, he was sympathetic, with a keen eye on the everyday.
In effect, C. Y. Lee crafted a hybrid cross-cultural novel in both content and form. He reworked popular Chinese film melodramas of the 30s set in the exotic occidental site of San Franciscos Chinatown. At a time of a growing civil rights movement at home and cold war policies abroad, Lee was one of a handful of Chinese Americans who published in English. Aware of this unique position, his non-threatening writing style was warmly received by mainstream readers eager for this excursion through an exotic ghetto.
Tired of Cringing
With the de-racialization of U.S. immigration laws in 1965, the New York metropolitan areas APA population has grown to well over one million. APAs now constitute ten percent and counting of the citys 8 million. New immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean along with Asians constitute a population yet to be understood within the black/white paradigm of city politics and culture.
In addition, the immigration preference categories have favored professionals, such as medical doctors, engineers, and scientist to fill the labor needs of the United States. Its these Asian New Yorkers among others who are paying to see this Broadway Flower Drum Song.
These new New Yorkers and their circles of intermingled family and friends are a highly educated, feisty generation. They have read from a spate of relevant novels, had the advantages of learning about APA history, were angered by the persecution of Dr. Wen Ho Lee, and know the pathos of cross-cultural family drama and comedy from experience. This unrecognized, nonetheless powerful cohort of consumers, are tired of cringing.
Judith Newmark, of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch writes with great clarity on this matter: When were faced with words, images or gestures that betray vestiges of a more frankly racist past, the cringe factor kicks in, overriding every other impulse. Were caught up short; we dont expect to see or hear those things anymore. The combination of surprise and embarrassment takes us out of the work of art whether its a masterpiece or just some old potboiler to make us reconsider the world outside its frame.
If Rodgers and Hammersteins Flower Drum Song is kitsch, then Hwangs version camps it up by playfully reconstructing the storyline and making the whole story over the top.
Hwang had three choices according to Newmark: When we look at old books, movies or plays, the dated race attitudes they often embody leave the contemporary audience with three choices: Forget it, frame it or fix it. Hwang chose to fix it. This is why theater-goers are giving his Flower Drum Song standing ovations.
Catching Up With the 21st Century
So, the question critics should be asking: Is Hwang & Longbottoms Flower Drum Song successful as camp? The audiences I witnessed definitely suspended their disbelief and had fun. I will say that successful camp works best when actors have the improvisational latitude (and confidence) to respond to audiences tweaking their performance just a bit from night to night. This is how live acts become popular in NYCs rough and tumble commercial culture. Critics should be held to the same standard of criticism. In appraising Flower Drum Song, reviewers are challenged to be equally adept at sensing the ongoing call-and-response that keeps camp (and theater) exciting.
John Lahr of The New Yorker (Nov. 4) has a feel for the changing sensibilities of our time. Instead of using a trite metaphor of food, for example, he speaks of an all-American male activity tinkering with old cars. The playwright David Henry Hwang, Lahr writes, puts a new chassis on an old engine.
Lahr can be taken seriously because he begins his review by simply recognizing what Hwang is attempting to do and accepting its significance. Lahr writes, Hwang eliminates stereotype, updates the evergreen American-immigrant dilemma over traditional and contemporary values, and repositions some of the songs as segues to more sophisticated multicultural themes.
Hwang, Lahr, Newmark, and audiences understand this new urban America in a way our clueless New York reviewers dont. Cultural productions and their reviews are a system of meaning-making, the stories we want to tell ourselves, and with the new very cross-culturally aware, middle class demographics were on the verge of a new critical standard. Savvy publishers and editors need to respond to these new audiences or this public will simply buy their stories elsewhere.
This piece was first published on www.maynardije.org. John Kuo Wei Tchen is a writer, historian, teacher, and cultural activist. His latest book is New York before Chinatown: Orientalism and the Shaping of American Culture, 1776-1882. He is founding director of A/P/A Studies at New York University and co-founder of the Museum of Chinese in the Americas. E-mail at Jack.Tchen@nyu.edu.