by Shi An
“Will I have to walk down and up yet again?” At the midpoint of this play, I ask myself this question as I walk up a flight of stairs I have once already walked down. Here, feeling lost, tired, and scared, I find myself between the basement and the ground floor of the Chinese Mutual Aid Association, looking back down at the underground level while facing forward towards what will be more of the same.
I emerge to greet a light-hearted bureaucracy. Workers exchange casual pleasantries amidst bustling office tasks. A cheery worker bee asks the closest audience member if they speak a language with a non-syllabic alphabet. They reply “no,” and the white collar worker respectfully asks the individual to invent their own alphabet and use that to fill out the form then. The audience laughs in surprise. The surprise was genuine, as this was one of only two humorous moments all evening.
The second and only other moment of humor was immediately following. (While laughter tends to swell infectiously and true comedy knows to sustain that swell, this show was not intended to be funny.) In this moment, an office worker informs the audience that a blank piece of paper, referred to as “this form,” is intended to reflect the “content of your souls.” The ridiculous and hilarious line, dryly delivered by Ashlyn Lozano, received genuine laughter.
Back to the play’s midpoint. I walk up the flight of stairs to the aforementioned laughter. (As I replay this experience now, I realize the answer is “yes, I will indeed walk this again.”) Where was I walking away from? An intimate space: a space of only three members of the audience and three performers. The performers assumed the roles of interviewer-interviewee.
In this room, a White-passing performer reads some disturbing and perplexing questions in rapid fire. One that stands out is, “Where does pity end and empathy begin?”
(I thought to myself: “This line is aimed to elicit pity and empathy for the suffering of immigrant communities. But when you focus on the supposed start and end points of pity and empathy, you digress from the urgent need for humanization. If one has to pose the question of where pity and empathy begin and end, they do not understand the core issue, and will create more damage by centering their own intellectual and emotional rigor at the expense of their subject’s need. Pity and empathy are nothing more than byproducts of humanization. Humanization should be the focus, not pity or empathy.”)
I walk back down those stairs for the second time that night. The comedy is over. This descent, unlike my writing of this review, was a forced gestural repetition experienced within the linearity of the performance. The initial ascent at the midpoint was the erasing of a gesture labored for, and this re-descent was the realization that I am re-doing my labor only to eventually re-erase it. ((At this point, my utter subjugation is completely understood.) (Though as I write this, by willfully rehearsing the memory of the gesture now, I have regained my sense of self.))
Here in the basement, we have a warm scene: we are in a slightly larger group, placed in a classroom for an English as a Second Language class. The space was accompanied, courtesy of sound designer Connor Ciesil, by distant chimes and a subtle drone, which morphed from a deeply disturbing drone in the opening scenes. The aural landscape was subtle enough to not intrude, yet still gave a magical and slightly off-putting feel to the space, due to the memory of those same sounds in the seminal moments of the show.
Though Phyllis Liu, Edward Mawere and Jin Park offered a touching bilingual interaction that highlights the importance of friendship in times of struggle, the scene felt disconnected because of my placement in the classroom. Having chosen to sit in the front row, my desire to turn around and view the interaction was thwarted by my somewhat nerdy desire to not turn my head away from the equally captivating teacher, well played by Christopher Acevedo.
Moving backwards, almost at the linear beginning. I am being terrorized. Each audience member was first told to pose for a polaroid picture. The word the facilitators used in the moment was “will”: this person will take your photo, rather than can, or if you like. This detail in word choice is important when considering the ethics of consent.
(This detail is even more significant when the actor giving the order does not appear to be Black, Brown, Indigenous, or any other Person of Color, and speaks with no audible accent in English, and some of the audience to whom the actor is speaking, are and do.)
I kindly refuse for my picture to be taken by a person I’ve never met. When I refuse, I am quickly reverted to the fact that the person at the front desk will nevertheless give me the forms I “need.” The role, played smoothly by Lucy Carapetyan, offered no acknowledgment of how this request could possibly have been a bit absurd and intrusive in the first place. (I was not made to feel comfortable for refusing this request.)
Immediately following this photographing, we were requested to—again, by the select cast members who were White or White-passing—provide via forms attached to clipboards, personal information necessary for immigration, which is, you could imagine, as much information as you would expect it to be.
(Even as I left my form blank, I felt threatened.) (The trauma that I associate with such forms and such cold, official requests for personal information is not even expressible in this space at this moment, to a general readership.) (The sheer audacity that the production felt like they could not only express it, but also harness it, subjugate complete strangers through it, and ultimately reap profit for it, is baffling.)
Back in the basement, the penultimate scene was a story of a Bosnian immigrant-refugee, performed earnestly by Samantha Beach. The narrative itself is valid, albeit laced with the racial stereotyping so common to immigrants newly arrived in the United States. But the delivery was off-putting as it was read from pieces of paper by an actor that held no audible accent in English, and intentionally broke character at the end of the monologue to declare that she comes to the story as a born and raised Chicagoan. (How many times must we let the privileged classes co-opt the resilience of those who suffer?)
As I approach the beginning, I also approach the end. The beginning and end of a performance are what I remember most vividly, which is almost always the case:
((I remember in the beginning, my eyes were squinty and I was called a chink and told to go back to where I came from, I remember at the beginning, I was told to stay out of certain professions because of race, in the beginning, I remember the profound self-loathing in my family tree, in the beginning, as mixed race, I remember the shame of not being x enough, I remember my mom’s, my grandparents’ and my own unique stories of immigration and forced relocations, and in the beginning, I was too afraid to express any of this.) (In the end, though, I have overcome this silence, in the end, I refuse to tacitly bleed old wounds in order to spare those that can’t deal with truth. The threat of backlash doesn’t faze me. In the end, I am prouder, stronger and happier for speaking my mind in issues that pertain to me.))
((What a lost opportunity for us.) (We could have built something good.) (We could have built something unique, beautiful, and empowering.) (We could have created a celebration of love, hope, and power, things that were and always will be at the core of our diverse unity.) (We could have made this into a place of healing for the traumatized, and a place of learning for the unaware.) (We could have made this fun.) (We could have laughed, cried, giggled, wheezed, and whooped, all in the same space.) (We could’ve made this space into something.) (We could’ve made it about something.) (We could’ve made it about coming together.) (We could have made it about dancing.) (We could have danced!) (We could’ve opened up to each other.) (We could’ve talked, interacted, and learned from one another, with humility and patience and grace.) (We could have done all this.) (And we could have done it together.))
Mourning the past must include a look to the future. But in the end, I found the first line of DON’T LOOK BACK/MUST LOOK BACK all encompassing, in a stale, mocking, prophetic sort of way. “Hey, welcome back.” This line reminds us that although we don’t necessarily want to, we “must,” in certain moments, turn back to watch people in power recklessly elaborate on the trauma associated with the act of turning back.
There is no beginning, middle or end to the cyclical tragedies that are racism, xenophobia and nativism. Diligently exploiting these tragedies, DON’T LOOK BACK/MUST LOOK BACK was itself nonlinear in that it was politically and socially regressive.
(front, l to r) Sarah Lo and Lucy Carapetyan with the cast of Pivot Arts’ world premiere of DON’T LOOK BACK/MUST LOOK BACK. Photo by Michael Brosilow.