KPBS AIRDATE: FEBRUARY 25, 1998
Writers have always been fascinated by outsiders. Often, they are them. The search for an individual identity, for some way to belong, often begins in adolescence. That’s when Andy Lowe started writing and when Tim Miller came out. The two men’s journeys to self-awareness are currently on view onstage.
When he was 19, Andy Lowe won the statewide Plays by Young Writers competition with his inventive creation, “Cultural Hyphen.” Now, at the ripe old age of 22, he’s the artistic director of the Asian American Repertory Theatre, and he thought it was time to revisit and rework his early effort. Pity. In its first incarnation, the piece was a witty, trenchant and thought-provoking play about a young man trying to reconcile his SoCal present with his Chinese past. Though Lowe has clarified the young boy’s relationship with his white girlfriend, all the other changes are too explicit, too on-the-nose, less trusting of the audience. And this is underscored by the current, unsubtle production.
Whereas the play’s initial airing by the Playwrights Project was simple, elegant and magical, this one is wooden, amateurish and chintzy. The interweaving of the ancient myth of the Monkey King made the boy’s story poignant and brought his tale into the realm of the fantastic. The early version was angrier, but it had an intellectual edge and more than a little humor. Now, it’s all about fighting.
The martial arts are, admittedly, wonderful. In fact, that’s the strongest part of the production. But there’s so much more combat and less wizardry than before. That’s due, in part, to the cast, which is more experienced in martial art than in drama. Some of these people are making their theater debuts, and it shows. The moves are great, but the messages are pounded home, often in somewhat less than crystalline locution and projection. The Asian American Repertory Theatre has done some terrific work; their “Tea,” for example, was spellbinding. It’s time to get back to quality productions, experienced actors and theater magic.
Speaking of spellbinding, consider Tim Miller. The high-profile performance artist is founder of two of the most influential performance spaces in the country: P.S. 122 in New York and Highways in Santa Monica. He’s one of the famous “NEA Four,” the artists who, in 1990, successfully sued the federal government for violation of their First Amendment rights, when their fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts were revoked under pressure by the Bush Administration, because of the provocative nature of their work. Miller has been a gay activist and performer for 20 years. His new piece, “Shirts and Skin,” excerpts from his book of the same name, chronicles his coming out and development as a gay man. It’s a reworking of a dozen of his previous shows, “somewhere between a novel, a memoir and a sex manual.” “Shirts and Skin” refers both to the early sports teams of his youth, for which he never got chosen, and the framing device of the play. Miller hangs out his dirty laundry, a series of shirts that recall seminal events in his life. At the end, he strips down to his bare naked, full-frontal skin and affixes the clothes-pins to his body instead, in places that caused me pain even though I don’t even have some of those parts.
Miller is an electric performer and storyteller: antic, frantic, nuanced, exciting. But we’ve been down these paths so many times before. When will gay men tire of telling the details of their sex acts, and broaden their themes and their audience? When Miller started recalling his hilariously pseudo-Spanish-speaking family, I was enthralled and amused. Those tales grabbed me much more than his tail-grabbing exploits. Performance art navel-pondering, or should I say genital-gazing, is over. Millennium approaches: time to look beyond your body. Tim Miller’s too big to stay so small.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.