MONKHOOD IN 3 EASY LESSONS
at Gallery 2, October 2
101 HUMILIATING STORIES
at Smart Bar, October 1-3
In Monkhood in 3 Easy Lessons Dan Kwong tells us that common Western expectations and stereotypes of men oppress Asian American males. And although he brings plenty of props, movement, and energy to that proposition, it doesn't go any further: he argues not that the values that create that dynamic are screwed up but that he shouldn't be excluded from the boys' club--after all, he's just a boy too, an Asian American boy.
A native Californian with a degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Kwong has made a career of exploring his life in public in such highly autobiographical work as Secrets of the Samurai Outfielder, Boy Story, and Tales From the Fractured Tao With Master Nice Guy. Whatever charms those pieces had, his overlong and overwrought Monkhood in 3 Easy Lessons is superficial, trite, and gratuitous in its political posturings and disturbingly insistent on reiterating the terms of Kwong's oppression. Despite the occasional flashes of humor and Kwong's energetic presence, there was little new or fresh here.
Consider, for example, the inordinate focus on penis size as a measure of virility and manhood. Kwong tells us in several stories that there's a perception that Asian and Asian American men don't measure up--he even tosses in a quote from former Penthouse adviser Xaviera Hollander, the "Happy Hooker," saying they were the only men who didn't satisfy her. And though Kwong makes it clear that this stereotype is upsetting to him, the stereotype itself is never transcended.
Kwong shouldn't be expected to drop his pants, of course, to disprove the stereotype, and he doesn't. (Although, frankly, there are all sorts of incisive, funny ways he could disprove the stereotype and still protect his modesty.) But you'd think he'd do more than state the case. Why is there such a stereotype? What in heaven's name is it based on? Do Asian and Asian American men have stereotypes that call Westerners' masculinity into question? What do Asian and Asian American men use as measures of their manhood instead--and are those values any less ridiculous?
The fact that at one point Kwong doffs all but a little loincloth suggests that modesty may not be an issue anyway. His perfectly sculpted upper body, especially his grid of abdominal muscles, tells us that he feels the pressure to measure up perhaps even more than he'll admit. Given the preoccupations of this piece, we have to wonder why he disrobes only partially. Part of the idea here is that he's running back to the womb--"Am I inscrutable enough for you? Am I ethnic enough for you? Am I authentic enough for you?" he shouts--so why isn't he in his birthday suit? Or in something more substantial and less coy than a gauzy jockstrap?
In Monkhood in 3 Easy Lessons Kwong also talks about two seminal events in Asian American history: the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and the murder of Vincent Chin by two disgruntled white auto workers. But the internment is used a bit gratuitously: Kwong reads from a letter by his Japanese American grandfather to a friend, shamelessly pulling our heartstrings. Thankfully, he comes back to the internment later in a more interesting way, sharing his shame and disgust over what he feels the older generation "let" U.S. authorities do to them and telling us that there were heroes--men who challenged FDR's orders all the way to the Supreme Court, men who resisted and were jailed. (We learn nothing of the women; they are virtually invisible in Kwong's work.)
Unfortunately, the way Kwong approaches these heroes of the internment and the story he tells of the entirely Japanese American 442 brigade (the most decorated in American military history, he says) feed rather than critique the stereotypes of manhood he insists are imposed on him. In effect, Kwong is as proud of the 442 as his grandfather was proud, after internment, to "tender two sons" to the American cause--to measure his loyalty and value by Western notions of manliness.
Kwong's use of the Chin incident works better. Although it's still a retelling of the basic story, he puts it on video as a newscast and intercuts that with other videos detailing his first memory of racism and a myth about misplaced faith. All the while the videos are playing, Kwong stands in a batting cage hitting baseballs into the audience, which are caught by a net before they leave the spotlight. As the stories build to a climax, the videos show close-ups of their narrators and Kwong's intensity in the batting cage increases. This section does create tension--with the random terror of the Chin murder, the suffocation of the memory, the timelessness of the myth, and the flesh-and-blood Kwong trapped in a seemingly benign cage of Western invention. It's smart, subtle, and devastating.
Unfortunately, that moment is the only one of its kind in Monkhood in 3 Easy Lessons. Most of the pieces are simply political statements, and most are too long. Even the humor, though welcome, is fairly cliched. And often, when Kwong comes to vital and provocative moments--twice he mentions homophobia (surprising for a heterosexual), once he refers to "the oppression of men," and at the end he obliquely mentions that he's put down some new roots in his travels to Asia--he fails to follow up.
Toward the end of the piece Kwong talks about how, as a man, he was taught not to feel or to reveal himself. Although Monkhood in 3 Easy Lessons proposes that this was a bad lesson to learn, what it evidences best is how well Kwong learned it. He may feel these issues deeply, but we rarely get a glimpse of the depth of his emotions or of how he manages or bests his oppressors. We're merely told that they exist (something we probably knew already) and that he's a victim.
Not being Asian American, I'm sure I missed some of the references and the way they may resonate for those who more closely share Kwong's experiences. And certainly there's something to be said for the mere fact of his presence onstage and the kind of affirmation that can bring. But stating one's pain over and over again just isn't enough.
Lisa Kron suffers a bit from Dan Kwong's malady. This New York-based lesbian comic spends as much energy reminding us of her sexuality--and how shocking it can be for others--as Kwong does on penis size. Unlike Kwong, she doesn't revel in pain so much as in her supposed ability to unsettle others. But like Kwong, she never gets beyond the surface. She simply states her case over and over, going on way too long. Both of these folks desperately need an editor.
A polished performer, Kron has a sure presence and a fine delivery. The problem with 101 Humiliating Stories is less with her performance than with the script. It's simply unfinished, so much so that even the performance veterans in the audience last Friday didn't have a clue when it was over. And though the laughs came more easily for Kron than for Kwong, they were perhaps a little cheaper too. Reminding us again and again that she's a "big lesbian" doesn't intensify the effect, it wears it out.
Again, Kron's mere presence onstage, the fact that she's out there talking about lesbian life, is important and affirming. But like Kwong, she needs to give her audience more than a familiar reflection.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Aaron Rapoport.