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SECRET HISTORY -- Tania Salmen (Lebanon), Patrick Ssenjovu (Uganda), Tinket Monsod (Philippines), Cherry Lou Sy (Philippines), Vaimoana Niumeitolu (Tonga) and Hiromi Sakamoto (Japan). Photo by Jonathan Slaff
"Secret History" by Ping Ching
Ohio Theatre, 66 Wooster Street, New York, NY
Presented by Ping Ching and Company
November 25-December 10, Th.-Sun. at 8, except Dec. 10 at 3
Tickets: $25 regular; $10 students and seniors
Reservations: (212) 529-1557 x208
Reviewed by Dorothy Chansky November 10, 2000.
In the mid-1990s, Time Magazine ran a cover that featured imagined average Americans of the future. These fantasy citizens were projections, created by morphing the faces of actual people from multiple races and ethnic groups. Line up two axes of humans, calculate a few generations of intermarriage between Xs and Ys, and voila: statistically generated probables. This angered people on both the right and the left. The right couldn’t handle a non-white America. The left found the small-featured, slim, light-brown skinned Americans too regularized and too ethnically cleansed.

Ping Chong’s theatre piece, “Secret History,” is a highly personal mapping of the human markings that don’t morph so easily because people neither can nor want to forget. This simple but moving evening of theatre is based on interviews with six people who immigrated to the United States as children, teens, or very young adults. All are Americans (or hip downtown New Yorkers), whether or not they are officially citizens; all are also still rooted in their countries of origin. Chong’s editing of the speakers’ testimonies yields a text that is part poem and part multi-cultural civics class with both aspects made resonant by being offered in the voices of the immigrants themselves.

The six speakers open the show with brief introductions in their native languages. Two women are from the Philippines, one is from Tonga, one is an ethnic Lebanese who was born in Venezuela, one man is Japanese and one is Ugandan. The first part of the piece is a quickie lesson on colonialism, as the speakers recount the purchase, appropriation, or victimization of their countries by outsiders. The British declared Uganda a protectorate in 1894; the U.S. purchased the Philippines from Spain in 1898 without including the natives in their decision; the League of Nations declared Japan and Japanese “undesirable.” In turn, Japan occupied the Philippines and forced children to sing the Japanese national anthem, while Uganda expelled all Asians on ninety days’ notice in 1972. Imperialism can be an equal opportunity game.

The personal stories are uplifting, sad, funny, life affirming, quirky, and banal. Vaimoana Niumeiltolu (from Tonga) tells how her mother found the courage to leave an abusive husband when she became a Mormon. After moving to Utah, however, her children were teased for speaking less than perfectly in either their native or their new language. Turning to the church for help, the mother realized that official Mormondom scorned both her color and her gender. Daughter Vaimoana’s escape to an undergraduate major in art in New York promises greater acceptance, yet this acceptance is peppered with such advice as “emulate Guillermo Gomez-Pena. Make whites feel stupid.”

Cherry Lou Sy, a native of the Philippines who is half Chinese, also tells of escaping to New York for the chance to attend college. As soon as she arrives she realizes she is resisting blacks and Latinos because of the influence of American television. Chinese New Yorkers tell her she is not really Chinese, just as Philippinos told her she was not really Philippine. Displacement produces not only homesickness but also soul-sickness, as the old hatreds are still around, just in different packaging.

Ugandan Patrick Ssenjovu, who left a television career in Africa because he recognized its limitations, wants to be an actor in a bigger forum. In New York he takes a day job in a shoe store only to be told by an African American that he is taking one of “their” jobs.

The six testimonials include confessions of stereotyped ideas about each other. Each performer asks the group what they think of when they hear the name of the speaker’s native country. For the group, Japan is samurai, temples, cameras and watches. For Hiromi Sakamoto it’s mosquitoes, consideration for others, and eight dollar cups of coffee. Inevitably it is the smells, foods, family members, gestures, weather, and daily routine that the speakers miss -- things that are often invisible or irrelevant to outsiders.

The text doesn’t escape platitudes. A grandmother admonishes, “you can choose anything in the world, but you can’t choose your heritage.” A teenager wonders whether stereotyping creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Ok, and obviously. White Americans in this piece are the monolithic strawman who can’t seem to get too much right. White ethnicity is either unrecognized or unimportant to these speakers; African Americans, for once, are mostly just like other Americans except poorer. Class is mostly a non-issue, although several of the speakers reveal privileged backgrounds in their native countries.

The staging and design (lights by Darren McCroom and sets by Wtoku Ueno) are simple but almost unnecessary. The speakers sit in a semi-circle, periodically getting up, walking in a circle, and reseating themselves in different chairs. The upstage wall features projections of a globe, with different continents and countries highlighted at different times. The floor of the semi-circle is covered with white flakes that look like artificial snow. These are pretty but not germane to the impact of the storytelling or to the effectiveness of interweaving the voices. The performers are clad in black except for Tania Salmen, who inexplicably appears in a Middle Eastern outfit suitable for the ethnic dance she performs at one point.

“Secret History” will be available for video purchase in 2001; it can also be booked for touring. (Call 212-529-1557). Actress Trinket Monsod, one of two professional performers in the cast and an educator, will create a Secret History Youth Project in the New York City Schools. Indeed, the best thing about this piece is its value as an eye-opener and educational model. Kids can and probably should try this at home. So should adults. The cover of Time Magazine may or may turn out to be an accurate prediction; the variety of backgrounds that make up everyday American life is here right now and not going away. To see or not to see... [Chansky]

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