Forget it is fake Chinatown
By Ed Rampell
If Karl Marx wrote: “the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle,” one can add that American history is also the history of ethnic struggle. In The Chinese Massacre (Annotated) playwright Tom Jacobson takes a Howard Zinn-like “people’s history” look at Los Angeles, revealing a little known, yet significant, event in L.A. history. Long before the 20th century’s Zoot Suit, Watts and L.A. riots there was a pogrom against L.A.’s then-200 inhabitants of Chinese ancestry in 1871.
There are few – if any -- more important, serious subjects than ethnic cleansing and genocide. Jacobson and Circle X Theatre Co. are to be commended for reminding us of this butchery and burning 140 years ago by dramatizing this stain – or rather, bloodstain – on L.A.’s record and reputation, rescuing the Chinese massacre from our collective amnesia. The killing of 18 Chinese men -- almost 10 percent of Chinatown’s population -- surpassed the number of victims of the Manson tribe yet is as forgotten as Squeaky and Charlie remain remembered.
It’s unfortunate that The Chinese Massacre’s bard undercuts not only the seriousness of his content but its power and cohesive flow with a self-reflective, self-indulgent form that repeatedly disrupts and distracts from what otherwise would be compelling storytelling. So-called “Annotators,” such as Lisa Tharps as ex-slave turned community leader Biddy Mason, frequently interrupt the drama, interjecting “footnotes,” commentary and the like. This, the aud is told, is done in the mode of Bertolt Brecht’s “Epic Theatre,” so as to “alienate” viewers from sentimental emotionalism in order to jog them into thinking about what is, after all, merely a staged performance, and what it all means. Get the point?
Brecht was generally content with just doing it (that is, building his Epic techniques into the body of his plays), but that isn’t good enough for Mr. Jacobson, who, we are told, has written more than 50 plays (although we’re also told that he has a day job), including House of the Rising Son, playing right next door on the Atwater Village Theatre’s other stage. To further compound matters, Annotators reveal that the fact-based drama is fictionalized, that dialogue is derived from sources outside the domain of the action and the like. For example, the central character, Lee Tong (West Liang), is fictionalized. This all reminded me of Alfred Hitchcock’s dictum that flashbacks must never lie about plots, or of a storyteller who keeps interrupting his/her own tale by saying,“But I digress” – and then persisting in doing so.
Although The Chinese Massacre does make reference to subsequent racial clashes between Angelenos, these end in the early 1990s. Looking back at the early, troubled history of Chinese immigrants 140 years ago in L.A., what are we to make of the impact of today’s large Asian-American and Asian population in Los Angeles County? It may not be politically correct to say so, and I don’t mean this as a values statement but simply as a matter of fact: parts of places such as Monterey Park seem more as if one is in Asia than America. The melding and conflict between people of Asian ancestry and those of other ethnic backgrounds continues today, and The Chinese Massacre provides some needed cultural context. Perhaps the best place to end the play could be with that UCLA white female student’s YouTube rant about Asian pupils in the library. Racism, alas, remains with and among us.
In spite of The Chinese Massacre’s self-referring, tautological technique, viewers who enjoy their drama brewed strong and dramatizations of history will likely appreciate the annals of this not so La-La-Land.
The Chinese Massacre runs through May 28 at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village. For more information: 323/644-1929; www.circlextheatre.org.