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Theatre Journal 54.3 (2002) 489-491

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Performance Review

The Square


The Square. Conceived and curated by Lisa Peterson and Chay Yew. The Public Theater, New York City. 24 October 2001.

A square, drawn in lines of salt on an otherwise bare stage, establishes the title, location, and playing area for a unique theatrical project that explores the Asian American experience from the Civil War to the present. The Square, conceived and curated by Lisa Peterson and Chay Yew, features brief plays by eight Asian American playwrights (Ping Chong, Philip Kan Gotanda, Jessica Hagedorn, David Henry Hwang, Han Ong, Diana Son, Alice Tuan, and Chay Yew) and eight non-Asian American playwrights (Bridget Carpenter, Constance Congdon, Kia Corthron, Maria Irene Fornes, Craig Lucas, Robert O'Hara, Jose Rivera, and Mac Wellman). This ambitious undertaking, representing a cross-section of contemporary American playwriting, originally premiered in L.A., in a production by Center Theater Group/Mark Taper Forum's Asian Theater Workshop. The New York premiere was presented by the Ma-Yi Theater Company at The Public Theater.

The action of each short play is set in and around a park in New York's Chinatown. Participating playwrights drew structural requirements and limitations out of a hat. For example, there were four time periods: 1880, 1920, 1960, and 2000. Themes included destiny, order, chaos, and tradition. The writers even drew lots to determine number of actors (up to four) and racial makeup of characters (Asian, non-Asian, or mixed) for each play.

A breakdown of which playwright wrote which piece was not provided until the end of the evening. Presumably, this was done in order for the plays to be received without preconceptions; the audience was not told if the individual piece they were witnessing was written by an Asian American, Caucasian, African American, or Latino. However, familiarity with a playwright's previous work often allowed for educated guesses as to the authorship of individual sections of The Square.

For example, it was easy enough to deduce that the piece Jade Flowerpots and Bound Feet was written by David Henry Hwang. The short play tells the [End Page 489] story of Mei-Li (Fiona Gallagher), a seemingly white woman who writes a memoir as an Asian woman. An agent from a publishing house (Saidah Arrika Ekulona) tells her that it cannot publish Mei-Li's book because the author would not be accepted as an authentic Asian woman. Mei-Li, née Ashley Winterstone, claims she is one-quarter Asian, and that authenticity is a dubious enterprise anyway. Those familiar with Hwang's works—which include the plays F.O.B., Bondage, and M. Butterfly—may recognize that the idea of authenticity is a recurring theme within the playwright's oeuvre. Moreover, Hwang himself has been accused of being inauthentic by other Asian Americans. Playwright and novelist Frank Chin lambasted Hwang, along with popular authors such as Maxine Hong Kingston (The Woman Warrior) and Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club), as being "fake." Hwang's contribution to The Square grapples with the authenticity debate head-on; it is a comedic satire that nevertheless asks serious questions.

Another work in which a playwright's previously established style was quite evident was Kia Corthron's Anchor Aria. Like her play Force Continuum—a drama about a family of African American police officers—this piece tended towards an over-reliance upon statistics to convey the effects of historical traumas on people of color. The central character within Anchor Aria is a half-black, half-Asian woman (Saidah Arrika Ekulona) who rants deliriously about her childhood while battling a bout of consumption. Interspersed with her memories, however, are phrases torn from newspapers, detailing racial discrimination against both African Americans and Asian Americans. "Congress pass Chinese Exclusion Act," she intones. "Congress don't pass anti-lynching bill." Conceptually, the idea of staging connections between seemingly disparate racial traumas holds promise. However, as a dramatic monologue, Anchor Aria is confusing and ill-executed. Ekulona writhes on a bed, shouting out the words. Even though Corthron's chosen theme was "chaos," there needed to...


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