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The Return of N*gger Wetb*ck Ch*nk 

What'd you call me?

Wednesday, Jun 27 2007
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{mosimage}“All of my folks hate all of your folks/It’s American as apple pie.”

—Tom Lehrer, “National Brotherhood Week”


In America, on occasion, ethnic slurs uttered at the wrong time, in the wrong context, by the wrong people (Mel Gibson, Michael Richards, Don Imus), often cost reputations and careers, and result in apologies to the offended groups and their religious leaders that, if you squint really hard and knock your head into a wall several times, sound almost sincere. The party line is that we’re culturally sensitive to the feelings of others, even though we’re more Balkanized than the Balkans.

L.A. has now tilted toward a statistical Latino majority, and there are hundreds of languages spoken within the city limits — hundreds of subcultures placing themselves in little boxes, comfort zones, in little districts dubbed accordingly by the City Council: Chinatown, Koreatown, Little Tokyo, Little Armenia, Thai Town, Historic Filipinotown... Behind trash canisters, between apartment buildings, L.A. residents from all corners of the world describe their neighbors living in the next district over with slurs. Slurs are a good place to start sweeping up a group’s common tics and bundling them into a stereotype. Sometimes these slurs are muttered in contempt for the “other,” sometimes co-opted by the target group, which uses the insult like a switchblade, lashing out before being lashed: niggah, bitch. Just take the Blue Line from the Seventh/Metro station to Long Beach.

TV and standup comedy traffic in stereotypes, reinforcing and perpetuating them. In response, identity-driven theater troupes and performance artists have been engaging in two decades of combat against ethnic and gender clichés with portrayals that demonstrate how people are more complicated than the stereotypes that confine them. From Tim Miller to Monica Palacios to Michael Kearns, these are storytellers of earnest sagas, funny sagas, truthful sagas that capture the humor and pathos of Latina lesbians and AIDS-afflicted trannies, with gentle, respectful and sometimes bawdy repartee. Yet they’re probably too gentle to actually puncture the dominating, suffocating shrink-wrapped clichés of Latinos as day workers standing in front of The Home Depot, as gardeners working the manicured lawns of Beverly Hills, or as nannies pushing their employers’ babies in strollers mid-morning; of blacks as pimps and drug dealers; of Russian and Armenian immigrants as cabbies with stubble and sweat-stained shirts or as Mafiosi driving SUVs with tinted windows.

No, it takes rude sketch comedy to puncture a stereotype on its sketch-comedy terms. George C. Wolfe understood this back in 1986 in his play, which was really a collection of skits, called The Colored Museum. In one sketch — “The Last-Mama-on-the-Couch Play” — we see a room with a big floral couch, and a huge curtain above it with a floral pattern identical to that on the couch. Suddenly, a large black woman walks into the room, dressed in a muumuu that has exactly the same pattern as both the couch and the curtain. When she sits on the couch, she disappears in front of our eyes. This visual gag was among Wolfe’s first volleys against the stereotypes contained in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.

Not quite 20 years later, five writers (Rafael Augustin, Allan Axibal, Miles Gregley, Liesel Reinhart and Steven T. Seagle) — three of them performers — concocted a poetry-slam, sketch-comedy, dance show called N*gger Wetb*ck Ch*nk at UCLA that’s since toured the country, mostly on college campuses. (It’s back now in Hollywood at the Ivar.)

A descendant of The Colored Museum for its ambition to shatter stereotypes, NWC opens with the snapping of fingers in the dark, which is broken by the appearance of a young Asian guy (Axibal) in purple silk, rhythmically intoning the word “chink.” He’s joined by the Latino Augustin, costumed as a cholo (of course), sliding the word “wetback” in and around “chink.” The duo has a nice riff going when African-American Gregley shows up in a long pimp coat and fedora, chanting in counterpoint, “Go, niggerniggernigger; Go, niggerniggernigger.” As they crescendo into a variation on a “row, row, row your boat” three-part round, they bunny hop in unison — a ludicrous, brilliant emasculation of three of the most hateful words in our culture, neutralizing them through mockery. From that point on, I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face.

The show is a hit parade of stereotypes, exposed and plundered. Axibal says he wrote the play on a laptop; Augustin, on a notepad; Gregley “learned it phonet-i-cally.” Axibal had to suffer the meltdown of his childhood dream to be Tom Cruise; Gregley, who grew up middle class, idolized George Michael. (“I was 13 years old when I first realized I was black.”) When his family spent a year in Atlanta, the stranger in a strange land had to learn how to be authentically black: lower the trousers, learn the strut, listen to language tapes. (“Aim goin’ da sto!”)

Augustin relays the poignant saga of his illegal Ecuadorian parents. Once doctors in Ecuador, whose licenses lost their value at the border, they ended up doing menial labor in the land of opportunity. (“My father used his pediatric-surgeon hands to wash the Honda Accords of the enlisted Navy soldiers at the Alamo Car Wash in Chula Vista. And my mother used her precise knowledge of atropine, halothane and sodium pentothal to restock Viva paper towels on the shelves of the Kmart in National City.”)

All of this plays out before a backdrop of flats painted in multicolored squares — not unlike the pattern decorating the “smart-growth” condos on Hollywood and Western.



I live in an area of the Hollywood Hills that once not only forbade ownership of property by Jews and blacks, but imposed a curfew on the latter. Human nature has not changed since the ’20s, when those real estate laws were in place along with miscegenation laws, upholding what? Property values? Domestic security? It worked.

You can find a bushel of Caucasian movie stars at the local Mayfair Market, but not many blacks in our so-called integrated neighborhood. It might as well be Manhattan Beach, though there are a few Armenians and Persians among a snowdrift of white people — young, rich white people. Not many Latino homeowners either, that I can see. Not here, among rows of manicured gardens and restored Craftsman bungalows. The Spanish- and Armenian-speaking kids hike up to the local public elementary school from below Franklin. The children of the hill dwellers study in private and home schools. And the cycles of indignation and backlash such segregation engenders are described in Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice and Othello — Montagues and Capulets, the Jew and the Moor, there’s no way around it. Tom Lehrer was right. We Americans, as groups — like groups everywhere, I guess — don’t care much for each other, not enough to live in each other’s neighborhoods. Maybe we’re all just scared, feeling beaten up by life, which is what life does best. So we congregate and clutch (if we have anything to clutch), and in quiet corners, when the microphones are off, we empower ourselves by belittling others. Ethnicity is a particularly potent divider, especially when we’re speaking hundreds of languages and barely understand each other’s words, let alone woes.

For all the rudeness of its title, NWC is an almost sweet attempt to bridge ancient divides. It brims with the hope that once minorities get political power, things will change. Hmmm. Condoleezza Rice? Clarence Thomas? Alberto Gonzales? Assimilation corrupts. And absolute assimilation corrupts absolutely. These guys could do a great show about minorities who forget where they come from, but that would be a stereotype.


N*GGER WETB*CK CH*NK | Created by RAFAEL AGUSTIN, ALLAN AXIBAL, MILES GREGLEY, LIESEL REINHART and STEVEN T. SEAGLE | Presented by SPEAK THEATER ARTS at the IVAR THEATER, 1605 Ivar Ave., Hlywd. | Through July 29 | www.plays411.com/nwc
click to enlarge Naming names: Gregley, front and center, with Axibal and Augustin in background (Photo by Carol Petersen)
  • Naming names: Gregley, front and center, with Axibal and Augustin in background (Photo by Carol Petersen)

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