Theatre Journal 55.3 (2003) 518-519
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Big Head. By Denise Uyehara. With additional words by Masamori Kojima, Edina Lekovic, Shady Hakim, Lulu Emery, Tamadhur Al-Aqeel, Lillian Nakano. Highways Performance Space, Santa Monica. 21 February 2003.
Denise Uyehara's Big Head begins with a disarmingly familiar trope often used in autobiographically-based solo performance. Addressing the audience directly, Uyehara recalls a childhood coincidence when her hand and a neighborhood apartment were burned on the same Fourth of July holiday. She remembers her own burns as vividly as the burning apartment, although she had only witnessed the latter incident from her father's home-made Super 8 film. The nature of her experience has become blurred, for memory collects her actual and vicarious encounters in the same album. [End Page 518]
Empathy, or the ability to experience others' pain and pleasure as one's own, motivated the creation of Big Head. In our post-2001 consciousness, Big Head seems an immediate response to the trauma of September 11th. But it was an irony of history that made Big Head as topical as it is. Uyehara actually began the project in late 2000, inspired by a coalition between Arab Americans and Japanese Americans. The principle of coalition, an activist strategy fueled by empathy, serves to turn Big Head from a performance of recollected self into one of a collective self, which might be described as the collage of a responsive US citizen during times of crisis. "I've come to believe there is no more important time for me to be an American, an accountable one," as Uyehara notes in the program.
Coalition-building among diverse Americans is the politics to which Big Head adheres; it also provides the project with a working method. Big Head proceeds in a montage of disparate scenes, incorporating Uyehara's own voice with those of many others whom she interviewed for the piece. Simple narratives with movements work in tandem with the video footage of a vigil, live Super 8 film projection, and an interactive sequence of clay animation. Intermittently, audience members are called upon for participation—once to join the artist in her persona as a fourth grader to recite the Pledge of Allegiance collectively.
The tonality of the scenes varies between the humorous and sombre, the solemn and outrageous. Donning a headgear sporting two US flags, Uyehara becomes an SUV driver and vehicle in one, cruising and cursing through freeways. She reaches her destination, marked by the deus ex machina intervention of a stage hand holding an electric fan. The gravity of the scene suddenly shifts, while the stage hand recedes from view. Uyehara, as if blown by a storm or walking on another planet, struggles to reach a table where the fan is set next to a mound of red clay. Washed by an eerie blue light, Uyehara molds the clay into several ambiguous shapes, the most distinct of which appears to be a human figure. She has the figure decapitated, its head blown away by the fan, in a stroke that brutally evokes the crashed twin towers. The coda to this scene suggests a reason, if not justification, for the terrorist acts. Uyehara removes her headband and places a lone US flag on top of the clay mound. She holds her palms up to reveal their imperialist red dye from the clay: caught red-handed.
Central to Big Head is the analogy that Uyehara draws between this country's treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II and that of the Middle Eastern Americans after the September 11 tragedy. This thematic thread finds a visual counterpart in an ingeniously deployed large piece of paper. The paper is the letter composed by Uyehara's great uncle Masamori Kojima from Rohwer Relocation Center where he was interned, and it becomes a symbolic veil of self doubt and humiliation for Edina Lekovic, a Muslim editor-in-chief whose journalistic integrity is questioned because of her religion. Standing amidst images projected onto the wall, Uyehara holds the paper flat as a portable screen, which brings into relief the candle-lit faces...