Hometown: Hyde Park, Chicago
What lenses or identities make your perspective as a writer unique?: Female, Chinese in America, a Shakespeare nerd and Chinese opera scholar, an artist who believes in the power of translation and adaptation.
What was your favorite live performance this year and why?: It is so hard to pick a favorite performance, so I will share my favorite live performance experience this year. I went to see Indecent at Victory Gardens, on the day when the anti-semitic Pittsburgh synago
What is the purpose of arts criticism?: Arts criticism is the way by which works of artists can resonate with different meanings and voices. Through writing, ephemeral performances acquire another life beyond time and space. Criticism, though often defined as an art of evaluating, is also an art of finding common grounds. It should aim to make different points of views available to the artists and the arts more accessible to everyone.
Reviews (Most Recent First)
There are no new tricks under the sun, only variations of human desire. Raven Theatre Company’s Hoodoo love is a heartrending ride through love, lust, and loss. The ride itself may feel long at times, but the train does keep moving. Written by Katori Hall and directed by Wardell Julius Clark, this potent performance is a tribute to an awakened black woman, whose broken heart is what it takes to kick start a journey to self-determination.
Set along a cul-de-sac, the stage (scenic design by Sydney Thomas) pulls us right into the restricted life of the Great Depression. Two shacks, one way. On the top of the houses, two broken pieces of wood are the closest things to a roof. Connected by a narrow porch, two shacks stand wall to wall. The black box Schwartz Stage is a brilliant choice for the show, packing intimacy and uneasiness into one place. Behind the main architecture on stage, a partial railway is crushed behind the shacks, twisting and turning onto the back wall–just like the lives of their residents.
Standing on the left is the house of Toulou (Martiasia Jones), who runs away from the cotton fields of Mississippi to the bluesy streets of Memphis. Living next door is Candylady (Shariba Rivers), a Hoodoo witch and former slave. A thin laundry line separates Toulou’s bedroom and the Candylady’s cabin, connecting Toulou’s thirst for love to the temptation of Hoodoo. Eager to win the heart of her lover Ace of Spades (Matthew Elam), Toulou turns to potions and spells for charm, only to find herself lost in her own tricks.
The tricks keep turning around, while the characters move with less purpose. Throughout the play, Ace experiences a series of abrupt transformation from a ladies’ man to a passionate lover, and eventually to a brutal husband. The key to these changes is neither in the words nor in the actions. Rather, the cast of tricks, the discovery of mojo bags, and the sights of magical prescience escalates the plot. Even Toulou, the spell maker, cannot help but sinking and swallowing into the unexpected turn of events. The Hoodoo magic is so powerful that it muffles the uniqueness of complexity of each character. All the human energies are saved to the very end of the play, when Toulou packs up the guitar and leaves for Maine. Her determination to pursue her own dream by herself is a splendid moment of true catharsis, erupting with tremendous force.
Historically, hoodoo, also known as rootwork or conjure, was brought to the Americas by enslaved Africans. In the era of great migration, the conjuring tradition speaks directly to the violence and disregard that black people endured. In Hoodoo Love, when suffering can no longer be cured by the spirits, gods, or others, self-consciousness grows from this vulnerable wound, driving the most powerful actions.
Multimedia, Colors of the Music: An Ode to a Pre-Digital Album Cover, William Tyler’s 2019 “Goes West”
Opening William Tyler’s 2019 album “Goes West” is Robert Beatty’s gaze into the colors of music. In this world, the “West” is green, and so are our eyes and ears. Accompanying Tyler’s journey to the universe in simple and wordless music such as “Not in Our Star,” “Venus in Aquarius,” “Our Lady of the desert,” Beatty unfolds the musical cosmos in free shapes and clean shades, so our eyes and ears resonate in the same key. In lights and shadows, between dots and lines, we can hear the whimsical music traveling through space, traversing the universe.
A musician and graphic artist, Beatty finds nostalgia in the pre-digital era, when pixels are particle sprinkles floating like dust. Through an airbrush style, Beatty reproduces surfaces in a smooth wash and the shades in visible dots. Dots, like noise, yearn for our attention and connection. It is left to the audience to draw the three-dimensional shape from the flat scene. For Beatty’s source of artistic inspiration in his own words, see his interview with Eye on Design and FORGE.
The changing shapes and shades constitute a fantastical journey between different forms. Through an open window, mountains wrinkle like a piece of silk, floating in the air along with the clouds. Underneath the slim opening beneath the silky mountains, the journey across space continues: glowing stars burgeon along, leading the way to a river guarded by bleak trees. The path of transformation finds its focal point at the green eye and ear, circling back again to the mountain that seeks an escape. Here, objects are both animated and muted: it is the eyes that fill in life.
Beatty’s use of colors is exceptionally vibrant and provocative. The light pink clouds ascend the brick red mountain, setting off a bright corn-yellow moon. Strong contrast and high saturation is by no means a new trick for Beatty. In an illustration piece for The New Times Magazine’s article “Letter of Recommendation: Color Blind Pal”, Beatty utilizes the same color palette to capture the visual world for the red-green color-blind. The effusive tint of red permeates its expansions into the calming green. Similarly, on the album cover, the outstanding pink, in circular hues, lifts up and dissipates into the air, just like music.
Let’s be honest. We are at a time where physical albums are past their peak. The idea of purchasing music at a store is as dusty as those corner boxes of CD sleeves. As you are reading this article, you have probably found “Goes West” online, where Beatty’s cover art appears as the face of the album, waiting for a click. But, let’s say if, if you are holding this album in hand, right now. After you tear open the plastic wraps, you look at the image and gaze into the extended green room. Then, you turn to the back of the album, and there, you see the other side of the wall. The same window frame, the same moon and mountain, different perspective. Now, as you open the cover, you unfold the green room, and stand by to enter the sonic realm of the corn-yellow moon, the silky mountain, and the effusive clouds. All is around you, on a thin flat surface.
Hope: Part II of a Mexican Trilogy
Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam War, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Amidst the political turbulence of early 1960s, Evelina Fernandez’s Hope: Part II of A Mexican Trilogy finds its anchor at a Mexican American household, where a mother, with the support of her four children, fights her own war for independence from patriarchal authority. Under the co-direction of Richard Gutierrez and Cheryl Lynn Bruce, Teatro Vista’s production of Hope highlights the hidden desires and fears in an age of sexual and political revolution. Here, history is an inventory list: events, pop songs, and video footages.
Hope tells a story about evolution and revolution: how do we breakaway from the past, a family of origin that confines our understanding of the world? For the four children of Morales, it is the constant absence of their unfaithful and angry father. The eldest sister Gina (Ayssette Muñoz) poses herself as a substitute father figure who is equally foul-mouthed and bad-tempered, while the other sister Betty (Janyce Caraballo) turns to fantasy conversations with Mr. President Kennedy for comfort. The two younger brothers, Johnny and Bobby (Nick Mayes and Joaquin Rodarte), drift aloose. Their father was a victim of a broken marriage: his mother ran away with a man and never came back. The escaped senior continues to haunt the house, looming over for generations.
The ending is almost a cliché, but good-natured and well-earned. Against her husband’s will, Elena enters the workforce and chooses to be a single mother. The story consummates with the family leaving for San Francisco for a new start: the mother runs away with her children, not with any man.
A talented cast skillfully showcased the complexity and vulnerability of each character. Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel carries Elena’s resilience inside a decidedly muted appearance, as she moves with brevity and clarity. Caraballo lifts forth a marvelous voice timbre, putting forth a charismatic and fanciful Betty. Muñoz smoothly transforms as Gina grows from a tempestuous teenager to a new mother, escalating time and plot. They live in their characters with body and soul, emitting bright and crispy voices to radiate from the ground.
But the virtuoso actors cannot save the awkward placement of songs throughout. Popular sound of 60s’ Rock ’n Roll such as “Love Hurts” and “Mr. Sandman”, though performed beautifully in short verses, are only jingles that bridge the transitions between scenes. Music do not propel actions. Music do not reveal emotions. All is left to catchy melodies that repeat once and again. When incidental songs cannot cover a change of time and space, historical clips take over. Stamped into a two-dimensional screen, a turbulent era is diminished to a backdrop that does not participate in storytelling.
Hope is a heartwarming story wrapped up in a hollow framework. It is neither a musical nor a multimedia theater, but a play intruded by period songs and videos.
The Brothers Size
Present, but invisible. For over 2.3 million imprisoned Americans, their life and struggle against the profound racial and social-class biases in our criminal justice system are often overlooked. At Steppenwolf for Young Adults, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s poetically thrilling The Brothers Size strives to confront the brutal legacy of incarceration, through a tender story of brotherhood and love–how the intimate ties that bind us together can free us in a world that fails to be free.
The story takes place at a car shop, where Ogun and Oshoosi Size work a labor of Sisyphus in heat and dirt. The scenic design by Yu Shibagaki is beautifully raw, stern but vulnerable. Entering the theater, the architectural wall of the theater comes directly into sight. There is no backdrop, nor wing curtains. Light booms and protuberant pipes along the wall call out the nakedness of the stage. On the ground, a vast ocean of shredded tires dresses the entire stage, emitting a tint of cold rubber smell.
Director Monty Cole, in collaboration with movement consultant Breon Arzell, choreographs an elegant but potent opening sequence, where the forgotten ones propel the action. Under a dim light, on an empty stage, a trap door is lift open by hands. The three protagonists climb up from the underground. In the darkness, they raise two work lights high up and then kneel down to plug in power, appreciating such ordinary objects with extraordinary awe. Here, an illuminated space for stories is not taken for granted. It is hard physical work, and requires acknowledgement.
At the core, it is McCraney’s rich characters and imaginative language that give life to this compelling and titillating drama. Drawing from Yoruban cosmology, McCraney crafts a deeply sympathetic older-younger brother duo: Ogun, who is named after the deity of iron working, and Oshoosi, who is the divine hunter embodying the human struggle for survival. The two brothers take on very different paths. Ogun is a firm and hard-working auto mechanic, while his younger brother Oshoosi is a wandering soul, who craves for a car that could take him onto journeys around the world. Since his release from the prison, the carefree Oshoosi suffers from the sternness of his brother. But Ogun cares deeply about his little brother. His rigorousness is his language of love, appeasing his own guilt for not being a better role model.
Through the colloquial and imaginative language of McCraney’s, the brothers’ mutual reliance on each other and shared remembrance of the past swiftly unfolds, taking us on a rollercoaster into the characters’ hearts. At times, the actors articulate the stage directions directly to the audience–a genius invention of McCraney where actors double as commentators. At the very end, Oshoosi announces his own exit, leaving Ogun alone on the stage. “Ogun Size sees it, how can he not, and is left alone in the early morning mist. End of play.” Ogun speaks, as a drop of tear floats down his face. The ineffable emotions suddenly become palpable through words. There, the invisible takes shape, and calls for our attention.