If you’ve been hanging out in these blog woods for a while, you know I’m never one to shy away from a challenging theatrical experience. Over the years I’ve cheered and rabble-roused for plays that many theatergoers, even those who go regularly, have been intimidated by – from Calixto Bieto’s madhouse take, a cross between American Horror Story and David Lynch’s nightmares, on Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carre at the Goodman to Elevator Repair Service’s seven-hour Gatz which mixed an actor’s reading of the entire book of The Great Gatsby with scenes from the novel staged with office furniture and supplies at the MCA Stage. Experimental theater? Bring it on. Abstract, inscrutable, ambiguous? Great adjectives. The power and beauty of these plays though lie in the fact that even if they’re difficult to comprehend or follow at first, they ultimately tell their stories and unveil their aspirations with clarity and insight. That’s what you call craft and artistry, folks. I think there is craft and artistry in Christopher Chen’s bold but puzzling and ultimately unsatisfying The Hundred Flowers Project, now receiving a Midwest premiere at Silk Road Rising, which is also admirably one of the few Chicago theater companies that don’t shy away from provocative, boundary-pushing material. Unfortunately though, despite all good ambitious intentions in attempting to tie together intriguing themes about Chinese history, the impact of social media on current society, and human beings’ propensity to create narratives to suit their self-interested purposes, Chen isn’t able to successfully convey why they should be tied together. The Hundred Flowers Project is a tough mudder of a play, straining the audience’s patience and endurance without really clearly communicating why.
Last year in early February, while my colleague and I were sitting in our Pittsburgh hotel lobby preparing for a client presentation, an older white gentleman came up to us and stared directly into my face and said “Happy New Year”. Although taken aback, I totally knew what he meant since it was the week of Chinese New Year. Unfazed, I responded back with “Thank you, but I’m not Chinese”. And without another word, he left. It was surprisingly bizarre, probably innocuous, who knows, but I was deeply disturbed by it. With those three words, he singled me out, for whatever motivations he might have had, because I was Asian, because I looked Chinese, because, in this sea of white business men in suits in this grand Pittsburgh business hotel, I was “the other”. Sure, we are singled out and treated differently all the time for a variety of different factors and characteristics (fat, sexy, smart, tattooed, shabby chic, Charlize Theron-look-alike, whatever), but to be singled out and treated differently because of your skin color and race is a searing, jarring, biting singling-out. Despite what some want to believe, we are not living in a post-racial world. So a play like Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s Invasion!, currently receiving a blistering Chicago premiere at Silk Road Rising, which focuses on how people use words to differentiate, segregate, define and re-define Arabs as the other is vital and critical. It is a provocative play that will make some people squirm in their seats, as they should!, but it is essential viewing.