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On Stage: a marriage of philosophies

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"It's storybook romantic," says Keith Uchima, describing his Jade Monkey King, a three-act musical adaptation of the colorful Chinese folk myth Monkey. The hero is a supernatural creature who's chosen by Buddha to accompany a monk making a pilgrimage to India. "They are joined by a pig and a martial-artist monk, and their adventures and fights against villains call for music, dance, and all sorts of pageantry."

Uchima first learned about this picaresque legend--which has enthralled generations of children in China, Japan, and Korea--while attending a songwriters' convention in Los Angeles five years ago. "I was very intrigued by an animation short dubbed into English, so I went to a temple in Japantown and knocked on the door. A monk referred me to the book Monkey, which, I later found out, isn't nearly as long as the original source, Journey to the West." Monkey was written by a local bureaucrat, Wu Cheng-en (c. 1505-1580), during the Ming dynasty. The action's set about 700 years earlier in the Tang dynasty, a time when literature was highly esteemed and Buddhist elements were permeating the native Confucianism and Taoism. The story focuses on a Taoist monk, Hsuan Tsang, who travels to India to bring back the scripture. His story is often read as an acknowledgment of the marriage of these religious philosophies in the ways of Buddha.

Uchima's two-and-a-half-hour musical skips over the intellectual conceits of the epic tale. "I leafed through Journey to the West and took only the stuff relevant to the story I had in mind," he says. That story was a simple tale of love and redemption, so he also had to invent a love interest for Monkey, Pearl. Her death causes him to lose heart and become rebellious--he disrupts a heavenly banquet and is imprisoned by Buddha. Meanwhile, an evil governor blocks the pilgrims' progress and the reuniting of Monkey and Pearl, who's reincarnated as an empress.

All this is set to music in the grand manner of MGM musicals, according to Uchima. "I mix all sorts of styles. There's rock, jazz, classical love arias, ballads, and so forth--whatever the story calls for. You'll hear a bit of Sondheim here and there, and Lloyd Webber." He's even penned a song called "Send in the Virgins. "

"I felt that as an Asian American I'm part of the American pop culture," he explains. "While most of us Asian Americans involved in the production are paying homage to an old-world culture, we're all part of America--just like the audience to whom we're telling this quintessential Chinese story."

Uchima is a third-generation Japanese American who grew up in Rogers Park. Mostly self-taught in composition, he developed his skills as a songwriter in the early 70s, when he performed original music on Tom Dreesen's Comedy Showcase while still a student at Lane Tech. "I was very much into the Beatles in my early days. Then I got into Miles Davis and the whole bebop movement. I even had a couple of rock and jazz bands." In the early 80s he started scoring for local theater companies, including Latino Chicago and Mina Sama-No. "I did the last few of Stuart Gordon's shows over at the Organic before he went Hollywood." He also turned to play writing. One script for Mina Sama-No, Autumn and Spring, led to his screenplay for Nothing Is Simple, a local TV show that won an Emmy. Nothing Is Simple concerns a relationship between a Japanese boy and a Chinese girl. Uchima says it's drawn from real life; he's married to a former Miss Chinatown.

Jade Monkey King may be the largest showcase to date for local Asian American talents. "There are 22 parts and just about as many personnel offstage. For once, we're not asked to play Eskimos or Japanese storekeepers, like I had to do in commercials." A year ago Uchima shopped the project around town, but theaters deemed a full production with an orchestra and many extras to be too expensive. A grant from AT&T, along with the assistance of the Chinese American Service League and Roosevelt University, finally allowed the show to go on. "We're calling it a workshop presentation, meaning that there's a small musical ensemble and not all characters will be in costume. Still, what you will see and hear is pretty much what I wrote."

Jade Monkey King plays this Friday and Saturday at 7:30 PM and Sunday at 2 PM. It's at Roosevelt University's O'Malley Theatre, located on the seventh floor of 430 S. Michigan. Admission is $10. For more information, call 238-1575.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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