By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
This dialogue may be a digression in the play's exploration of what gays actually contribute to a society, yet it articulates the primary theme of The Chinese Massacre in the theater next door: the struggle to understand a city by sorting out its history.
And so, in their wildly divergent styles, both plays wrestle with crises of civic identity and of origins, of ascendency through exploitation and exclusion, of living in shame and secrecy, and trying to find some peace in all that, perhaps even something sacred in the endless striving to reconcile scriptures and laws with the brutality of street warfare and bloody purges.
The Chinese Massacre is set in 1891 Los Angeles, 20 years after 18 Chinese men and one boy were shot or lynched in a race riot instigated by vigilantes in the name of protecting local employment opportunities from "foreigners." Even in 1871, with the Gold Rush waning, Chinese immigrant labor had all but completed the major east-west railroad arteries that would provide whatever oxygen of commerce could be breathed. And after the 20-year interlude, an educated Chinese physician named Lee (West Liang) wanders into the mercantile store of the aforementioned Reverend Crenshaw (Mitchell) in order to purchase a novelty item: the severed finger of a Chinese man who was among the victims of the massacre 20 years earlier.
This is the kind of artifact that archaeologists and paleontologists use to fathom the mysteries of the past. Lee's purpose is not only historical but religious. The finger is the last remaining fossil of somebody he knew — withered flesh and bone deserving of sacred burial, rather than being locked away in some shopkeeper's jewelry box. Lee is like Antigone, arguing with her uncle Creon over an honorable funeral for her brother, whom Creon regards as a traitor.
And from the minutiae of their barter, the events leading up to the massacre unfold in flashback, told, enacted, corrected and annotated, because a truthful history rarely makes for the best yarn. And it's the myths we recall, the hyperenergized, oversimplified rendition that gets made into the movie or published in schoolbooks — presuming that history is even in the curriculum.
The history that unfolds in the play includes Chinese human traffickers and slave traders, and Caucasians who risked their lives to protect the persecuted. It's the Holocaust in miniature, set in the Wild West. L.A. in 1871 had only six policemen, according to the play. One local sheriff, calling on marauding Angelenos to go home and let the law handle this Chinese crisis, is swiftly disarmed and overrun. There's stoic black Biddy Mason (Lisa Tharpes) who embodies the play's moral center, spitting into the Santa Ana wind, a kind of Donna Quixote.
For all its abundant virtues, and a fluid, beautifully performed production directed by Jeff Liu, the play suffers from its flow of historical scenes, which don't quite reach the kind of national or even local mythology to which it aspires. Among its challenges is that, like The Twentieth Century Way, it's trying to unearth a little-known local story, and so the play itself is a creation myth about the creation of a myth. It's hard not to compare it to John Guare's A Free Man of Color, which played last year at Lincoln Center. Set in New Orleans around the time of the Louisiana Purchase, Free Man focuses on seducer Jacques Cornet and his sexual exploits, until he slams into slave owner Thomas Jefferson, who says one thing about freedom and does nothing to support his words. Among the final images of this similarly playful historical wash is Meriwether Lewis (of the Lewis and Clark expedition), employed to strike out into the territories for the purpose of creating a map of the United States. If one is asking the question of who we are, where we are and where we're going, this poetically ambiguous yet thematically lucid image cuts to the heart of searching for the civic soul.
Jacobson closes with tableaus from L.A.'s subsequent race riots, which is telling — sort of — that we keep learning nothing because we keep erasing history. But that's not entirely true, even in L.A., and Jacobson is certainly smart enough to know that.
Why does our city keep exploding into riot every several decades? Jacobson's very good play alludes to that question, then dances around it. The play is a pageant, like the Rose Parade, intoxicating to watch, studiously observed, but then the parade goes by, leaving us with colorful images and provocative questions, but not quite enough to tie them together into a larger idea — which is what great movies and plays do. Yet if any playwrights in Los Angeles have the capacity to write a great work, Jacobson stands tall among them.
House of the Rising Son is more successful and less ambitious — which is why I actually prefer the history play. Young folklore collector Felix (Steve Coombs) droolingly observes handsome, older biologist Dr. Trent Varro (Paul Witten) giving a lecture in Los Angeles about parasites. Within 15 minutes of stage time, they're graveyard-hopping from Hollywood Forever to Forest Lawn, after which Felix finds himself with an invite to visit Trent's "family" in New Orleans for the weekend. Family would be dad (Patrick John Hurley) and granddad (Rod Menzies). The comedy is a gay version of Meet the Parents, but with an actual idea attached — that as parasites serve an ecosystem, gays similarly serve a social system.