By Greg Hugh, Staff Writer
Hennepin County Library celebrated Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month last month by holding its Spice & Slice series of events at selected libraries throughout its system. The series was produced in collaboration with Mu Performing Arts which presented a number of interactive and humor-laced productions which highlighted the “good, the bad and the truly ugly” of the Asian American experience.
The series included the premiere of American Bamboo and other productions such as Japanese Taiko, FOB, Hmong Tiger Tales and Korean Adoptee Stories.
Unbeknownst to this writer who decided to attend the performance of FOB, this was a play written by David Henry Hwang in 1978, which earned an Obie award in 1980. Since then, Hwang has risen to prominence as a preeminent Asian American dramatist.
The play’s title, FOB, is explained by the character Dale in the first lines: “F-O-B. Fresh Off the Boat. F.O.B.,” which are also the play’s closing lines. Dale continues his speech by describing the characteristics of F.O.B.’s, Asian people who are recent immigrants to the United States. He calls them “clumsy, ugly, greasy” and “loud, stupid, four-eyed.” Dale himself is an A.B.C., an “American Born Chinese,” and traditionally the relationship between A.B.C.’s and F.O.B.’s has been anything but pleasant.
FOB is told in a style that moves quickly between myth and reality, with the characters occasionally speaking directly to the audience. Grace and Dale are cousins, living in the Los Angeles area and attending college. Dale is fully American, second generation. Grace is first generation and holds the customs of China in higher regard. The arrival of Steve, an exchange student and a newcomer from China, fresh off the boat, forces them to confront a number of conflicting feelings about America, China and themselves. Dale is very confrontational with Steve, mocking his English and manner. And in turn Steve is defiant and even provocative. Grace tries to keep the conflict from escalating but finds herself increasingly drawn to Steve. Grace decides to go with Steve to a school dance and an uneasy truce, of sorts, is reached between Dale and Steve.
While certain aspects of Hwang’s play would prove difficult to produce on a professional stage, this simple production at the Ridgedale Library managed to pull it off. The back-and-forth between the play’s reality and elements of Chinese myth, while an innovative and dramatic technique, does appear confusing at times and detracted from the play’s full potential.
The cast delivered a very energetic performance with great enthusiasm that captivated the eclectic audience throughout the fast-paced production despite the spartan stage. It’s unfortunate that there wasn’t a larger audience to their performance.
Following the play, the cast along with Rick Shiomi, Mu Performing Arts Artistic Director, held an open forum with the audience.
Shiomi started by introducing the cast members. The role of Dale was played by Maxwell Thao, a Hmong actor appearing in his first Mu production. The role of Grace was played by Katie Bradley, a Korean adoptee and 7-year veteran of Mu Performing Arts. The role of Steve was played by Chinese actor Yefei Jin who has been associated with Mu for over 4 years and has written his first play and expressed an interest to do more writing.
While some members of the audience thought the play was enlightening and provocative, some were confused about role the mythical Chinese characters fulfilled.
However, one cannot deny that FOB is a thought-provoking play. Although the piece was written in the late ’70s, topics of immigration and assimilation are still all too pertinent in today’s political climate. By the time the characters in FOB reach an uneasy truce, the audience is left to their own devices to evaluate their perceptions of what it means to be an American.
Congratulations to Hennepin County Library for presenting Spice & Slice so that the community could celebrate APA Heritage Month and thanks to Minnesota’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund for its funding which would be welcomed in the future.
Editor’s Note: Mu Performing Arts is celebrating its 20th Anniversary and will be presenting Into the Woods, a Tony Award winner, with a Mu-inspired twist on this favorite musical: the casting, costumes and staging are re-imagined from an Asian American perspective. For details visit www.muperformingarts.org.