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Theatre Journal 52.3 (2000) 381-396

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Ghost Families in Sung Rno's Cleveland Raining

Karen Shimakawa


Mari: [Opening the book and reading.] The cadaver should not be mistaken for a real live person. A cadaver is only a receptacle, a tool, a construction that houses something else, something once living. It is something similar to an empty house. The people who once lived there have all moved somewhere else: to another city, another country. The cadaver is an empty space, four walls, a ceiling: and silence. There should be no attachment to the house itself, not even to the people who have left. 1

IMAGE LINK= IMAGE LINK= IMAGE LINK= Mari Kim, the soon-to-be ex-medical student in Sung Rno's surrealist play Cleveland Raining, reads from her medical textbook about empty spaces or, more precisely, emptied spaces--what remains (if anything) after someone has abandoned the space once occupied. Reading this passage in her textbook sparks a memory of Mari's dream the previous night: driving through the Midwestern countryside, she suddenly finds herself near the ocean and feeling "like turning the car into that wetness, that abyss." Finally giving in to the urge to escape the confines of the road, she muses, "I turn I take a sharp turn I'm turning and--Then I'm flipping through the air [...] and I'm bleeding, I'm in pain, I'm hurt, but I can't tell you, I can't tell you how happy I feel" (237-38). Her rumination on the textbook's description of a corpse as a structure from which the occupant has fled seems linked to her own dreams of escape, which take on the character of sublime fantasy.

Rno's subtle parody of traditional (western) medical approaches to embodiment and consciousness (in the textbook excerpt) may be taken as an apt metaphor for the development of Asian Pacific American theatre itself, for in many ways Asian Pacific American theatre is a structure whose original, aesthetic inhabitants have arguably moved on. In the thirty-odd years since its establishment in the wake of the civil rights era, identity-based Asian Pacific American performance has, in many cases, abandoned (or at least adapted) strategies, favoring a more varied, complex, and at times ambiguous stance on the politics of representation. Certainly, Asian Pacific American [End Page 381] theatre and drama are participating in a larger move away from western realism, 2 but arguably it is more than a simple aesthetic shift: Asian Pacific American performance strategies have proliferated just as the Asian Pacific American population and experiences themselves have grown increasingly varied. What started as a fairly explicitly politicized project aimed at "telling our stories" and rectifying historically inaccurate representations of "us"--which frequently emphasized our "Americanness" in the face of racist assumptions of foreignness--has become a much more complicated enterprise in the wake of post-1965 shifts in Asian immigration and refugee resettlement policies. 3 These policies radically changed, and are still changing, the ethnic, socioeconomic, linguistic, and generational parameters of "Asian Pacific America"; thus, the project of "truthful" or adequate representation/visibility for Asian Pacific Americans onstage is becoming both more crucial and more complicated than ever. With the growing presence of Asian ethnic groups other than Japanese, Chinese, or Filipino Americans, and with the increasing proportion of first-generation, bilingual Asian Pacific Americans with ongoing ties to sites outside the United States, the desirability of "claiming" Americanness itself can no longer be taken for granted.

In its place, a more complicated, often conflicted picture of Americanness and Asian Pacific Americanness is emerging in Asian Pacific American performance. Struggling to break free of the confines of the "truth-telling," realist model of theatre, many new and "old" Asian Pacific American dramatists have embarked on different aesthetic paths, ranging from Beckettesque absurdism (Philip Kan Gotanda's 1994 Day Standing on Its Head, 4 for example), to slapstick/sketch comedy (Slant's Big Dicks, Asian Men 5 ), to 1940s romance (Jeannie Barroga's Talk Story 6 ), to myth (Huynh Quang Nhuong's Dance of the Wandering Souls...


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