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  • "A Race So Different":Staging Racial Exception in Ping Chong's Chinoiserie
  • Joshua Takano Chambers-Letson (bio)

In 1995, as part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music's New Wave Festival, Ping Chong and Company presented Chinoiserie, a multimedia performance piece that Chong later characterized as a "collage [made] from the detritus of East-West relations" (64).1 The opening moments of the production feature director and author Chong entering an empty stage to take his place at a lectern situated at the periphery of the stage. He is dressed in black slacks and a black turtleneck. The lights in the house remain at full intensity and Chong speaks commandingly into the microphone with a steady, patient, and wry delivery. It is 1987 in Pittsburgh and he's "having dinner with a curator and his lady friend. They suggest a Chinese restaurant" (70). Unsurprisingly, the restaurant is "one of those Chinoiserie jobs." He recounts: "As we are waiting for our dinner, the lady friend undresses her chopsticks from their paper clothes, pouts and frowns. I ask her, 'What's the matter?' and she says, 'Why don't they use knives and forks? This is America. Why don't they stop using chopsticks?' I wonder who she thinks 'they' are" (70-71).

In Chinoiserie, Chong, four actors, and three musicians perform a dramatic history of Euro-American/Chinese relations, focusing specifically on the history of the Chinese in America. Shuttling between the historical and the personal, the piece improvises and imagines scenes from the past; stages deconstructed segments of legal documents; and performs moments drawn from works of popular entertainment, sewn together with short narratives told by Chong about his personal encounters with racialization. For the hour and a half of the performance, Chong remains at the lectern, watching Chinoiserie unfold. He is at once interior and exterior to the production: interiorized at the center of the action on stage as its deciding force, creative engine, and unifying presence, while physically located in an external space at the stage's periphery. This simultaneously interior and exterior position reflects what Chinoiserie represents as the political and juridical forms of subjectivity experienced by Chinese Americans and, more broadly, Asian America. [End Page 115]

Chinoiserie stages the historical, social, and legal production of Chinese and Asian American subjects as simultaneously interior and exterior to forms of ideal national, racial, and juridical belonging. In doing so, the production documents and critiques the subjection of Asian Americans to a state of racial exception. Drawing on theories articulated by Carl Schmitt, Giorgio Agamben, Aihwa Ong, Jasbir K. Puar, and Tavia Nyong'o, I define the state of racial exception as an experience of national and juridical subjectivity wherein the racialized body moves between the interior and exterior of national belonging and, in particular, the protection of the law. In turn, ideal national and racial subject formations are constructed and stabilized against racialized bodies that are subject to these forms of exception. Chinoiserie uses the imaginative capacity of performance to stage, document, and challenge the process whereby racialized bodies are subject to the state of racial exception. It also demonstrates how a position that is simultaneously internal and external to ideal national and juridical subject formations contains a condition of possibility for critiquing and remedying racial injustice. Thus, Chinoiserie performs methods for achieving justice beyond the limits of national and juridical conditions by affirming difference and multiplicity through the excavation of elided histories.

Staging Racial Exception

At the back wall of the stage are four lattice-framed panels; at the center is a large, rectangular white carpet. Four metal music stands and stools are upstage left where the actors reside when they are not embodying a role on the carpet. To the right is an area for the musicians and their instruments. Before the stage left wings and just outside of the demarcated performance space is Chong's bright red lectern. The characters are performed by a multi-racial collective of actors: Shi-Zheng Chen, Aleta Hayes, Michael Edo Keane, and Ric Oquita. They remain on stage for the entire performance; their scripts are displayed before them on the music stands. They are dressed in neutral black outfits...


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