Although the American century arrived with the myth of its melting pot, today we live in a culture riven by identity politics and their dissonant vocabulary. It's no riddle why; while certain categories of people may enjoy more civil rights than they did 100 years ago, they also remain fairly unassimilated - a fact repeatedly witnessed in the theater, which is in many ways a more reliable mirror of its times than film. The 1990s have seen a long parade of confessional performance soloists belonging to disenfranchised ethnic groups, as well as those from "empowered" categories unimagined during the gilded age: gays, people with diseases and disabilities, people who have abused and been abused, and children of all of the above.
Mostly they are not happy people; underlying even the funniest of their stories are the classic ingredients of dramatic turmoil: a sense of sadness, injustice or loss. Their narratives do not begin with Uncle Avram coming to America with $5 and end with his family moving to Flintridge. They have complaints to air and agendas to market, which, depending on the subtlety of the sales pitch, usually limit their audiences to like-minded sympathizers. Nevertheless, they have carved out a significant niche on the stage (and in the world of arts funding), although the rest of the country, when it is even aware of these performers, regards them as ax-grinders or whiners, and points to them as proof that the melting pot has been replaced by a handicapped ramp.
The form of these pieces undeniably influences the content of audience response. The flip of a wrist, the wink of an eye or the lowering of a voice all determine if a work is shrill and self-pitying, or if it offers a bridge of communication to the rest of the world. Even the most liberal of us, when confronted by some lecturing, self-disemboweling diva, cannot help but squirm in the dark, thinking, "Oh, shut up and get a job."
Several solo shows running locally are mercifully free of cant, and, while often technically inept, display a vulnerable honesty that places them above the smog layer of hype and self-pity. Sometimes they work, sometimes not, but perhaps even more important, they disclose an interesting common denominator: Their writer-performers don't identify themselves as single-background artists (African-American, gay-American, Asian-American) but instead live in a country where even the hyphens have hyphens. Susan Miller, for example, isn't just a lesbian. She's a Jewish lesbian who, as the title of her show, My Left Breast (at the Celebration Theater), hints, also has had a mastectomy. Jimmy Tingle, in his Jimmy Tingle's Uncommon Sense (Coast Playhouse), is more than an Irish Catholic, he's a recovering alcoholic and a social critic. Likewise, Saleem, the author of Getting Into My Skin (an autobiographical monologue occasionally interrupted by scenes with two other actors), playing at Los Angeles Playhouse, is an Arab immigrant and a homosexual who is also HIV-positive. Finally, there's Cynthia Gates Fujikawa, an Amerasian woman from a dysfunctional family scarred by illness and America's Japanese relocation camps.
It would seem difficult to top Gates Fujikawa's adversity credentials. Her racially ambiguous features have made it difficult for her to land acting roles; on the other hand, her late father, Jerry, suffered no lack of stage and film parts - but, since they were mostly stereotypes (he uttered the deathless Chinatown line "Salt water - very bad for glass!"), he was denounced as being a kind of Asian Stepin Fetchit. Not only that, but Mr. Fujikawa was a silent, often absent dad who, Cynthia discovered toward the end of his life, had fathered three children in a marriage previously unknown to her. The thrust of her story in Old Man River (Theater West) is Cynthia's self-education about our notorious relocation camps and her search for her family's past and, ultimately, for her long-lost sister from Jerry's first marriage.
She is a guileless performer whose occasional awkwardness onstage is balanced by the unaffected awe and bewilderment she alternately experiences when discovering the joys of childhood or her country's darker secrets.
The main glitch with Old Man River, paradoxically, is that Gates Fujikawa is sitting on almost too much material - or, at least, too much for her to dramatize with clarity. (Here director Beth Schachter seems to have been AWOL, allowing her actress's concentration to wander throughout much of the evening.) Nevertheless, the show tantalizingly approaches, then retreats from, a number of issues perhaps better examined in print than on the stage. There is, for example, the dilemma of her father, who not only was criticized for his obsequious portrayals, but for the very vocations - cooks, gardeners, coolies - of his characters, as though even here he was an underachiever. Instead of presenting an apologia, Gates Fujikawa briefly quotes Jerry's pragmatic, it-paid-the-bills defense, and his claim that his efforts opened the gate for other Asian actors.
In another potentially charged moment, she recalls her discomfort during a Jewish schoolmate's oral-history report about German death camps; Gates Fujikawa seems on the verge of broaching the thorny subject of holocaust-rating, but lets the issue slide.
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Susan Miller, in My Left Breast, also finds herself straying onto a potential minefield of controversy, only to tiptoe out of it before expressing an opinion. She reports how, when one gay man told her how lucky women are because "they don't get AIDS," she calmly reminded him that women are prone to breast and ovarian cancer, and, yes, do get AIDS. But just when you think she is going to talk about whether or not AIDS is a "worse" disease than breast cancer, which annually kills more women in America than AIDS does men, she gently drops the subject. When it comes to this can of worms, no one's looking for an opener.
Still, Miller is a personable performer, a sprightly woman in her 50s who was stricken by cancer at 36 while raising a son alone, and who found a friend in cocaine. Her piece, which won an Obie, is more polished than Gates Fujikawa's, although sometimes the delivery of her poetical material, directed by Nela Wagman, has the air of a reading about it. The 70-minute-long evening also comes off as strangely vague in parts - who was the father of her son, anyway? We never hear a word about him, getting, instead, a little more than we care to know about an ex-lover named Fran. What gives My Left Breast its special dignity is that, being a play about an illness, it doesn't beg for sympathy; we uneasily intuit from line one that Miller's going to bare more than her soul during this show, but when she finally does remove part of her shirt, she doesn't come off as another middle-class exhibitionist charging admission to her pain.
In spite of their seemingly extreme circumstances, neither Gates Fujikawa's nor Miller's performance leaves the viewer feeling voyeuristic or distant from these two very different human experiences. Both shows suggest that the greater the identity gap between performer and audience, the less alienated or "different" the viewer may feel from the storyteller, unintentionally pulling the rug from under the very notion of identity politics. (This is also evident in Jimmy Tingle's charming satirical show when, at one point, he learns, after all these years, his father's side of the family is not Scots- Irish Catholic, but solid English. It's as though Tingle, a man of Mark Twain-ish wit who, it may be said, climbed out of working-class Boston on his family's hyphens, suddenly had everything he knew about the world turned on its head.)
It is one of the tarter millennial ironies that as we enter the post-space age, the melting pot, a seemingly indestructible icon of the American imagination, has all but been forgotten, a discarded metaphor of ragtime optimism cracked wider than the Liberty Bell. Perhaps its promise was too premature a vision to realize in this century, perhaps it will never be realized. With no such talisman to guide us into the next century, it may once again be the turn of theater to give us a national identity - by telling us not only who we are, but who we are not.