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Flip the Script Friday: Black Lives, Black Words – Part III

This semester is officially in the books, as I proctored my students’ final on Wednesday, finished all the grading on Thursday, and submitted the grades today, so hopefully I can get back to writing and blogging some more.

I realized that I’ve had Black Lives, Black Words out from the library since last summer/fall or something, and haven’t gotten a chance to finish it, so here’s to wrapping up reading it and highlighting some of the interesting pieces in another edition of Flip the Script Friday.

In This Bitter Earth by Harrison David Rivers, two young men – Neil, white, and Jesse, black – are at a protest in memory of Trayvon Martin. Neither intended to be there, but they ended up there anyway. Neil ends up with a megaphone in his hand, and thrust atop a platform, so he does the first thing he can thing of, which is to recite a poem by black poet Essex Hemphill. At first, Jesse is offended, but as they say the words in a combination of call-and-response, alternating lines, and together, there is a strange, uneasy moment that may or may not be peace, before the sound of protestors are heard. I think that this would be interesting on some sort of moving platforms – up and down, to reflect the power dynamic between white male voices and black male voices in society. Think cherry pickers or something. That would be something worth staging and seeing.

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Reading My Way Across America: Basketball Under the Big Sky

I haven’t been doing a ton of reading for fun lately, with grading, research, and dissertation-writing taking up most of my time, but I have managed to finish a few books this semester. In addition to being a stellar read, this book gave me a really interesting and fun idea. But I’ll get to that after this review.

Full Court Quest: The Girls from Fort Shaw Indian School, Basketball Champions of the World by Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith is an in-depth look at an extraordinary situation and group of people who have been almost lost to history and memory. Peavy and Smith navigate the reader through life at Fort Shaw, an Indian boarding school in Montana. Fort Shaw was among the institutions set up by the government in order to “civilize” Native Americans in a movement that was later regarded as a cultural failure. However, during the school’s heyday at the turn of the twentieth century, the new sport of basketball took hold in the heart of Josephine Langley, a Native American herself who had been educated on the East Coast. She brought the game back with her to Montana and added it to the physical education regime of the school. It was popular among the students, especially a group of girls who were exceptionally skilled at it, so much so that in the few years Fort Shaw fielded a team, against high schools and colleges from around Montana, the girls lost only once. In addition to playing basketball, they would also perform their own musical entertainment, read poetry, perform tableaus, and ballroom dance with local boys; all in one night. When word of this amazing team spread, they were sent to St. Louis in 1904, where they became part of the Native American exhibits along with Geronimo and others at the World’s Fair.

Along with all the other innovations of the World’s Fair, national and international athletic competitions emerged, reviving the Olympics. In that same spirit, the Fort Shaw girls supplemented their exhibition games at the Fair with a tournament against local high schools. Emerging undefeated against any team they faced, they were declared World Champions and presented with a silver trophy which they took back with them to their school. This level of interaction between Native Americans and white people was highly uncommon and actually revolutionary for the time, and it succeeded in changing many peoples’ preconceived notions about Indians. Even the mainstream media took notice, referring to the team initially with racially-motivated descriptions which got less and less stereotypical, until they were described in the newspapers just as any other team – evolving from “dusky maidens” to “Indians” to just “talented girl basketball players,” earning respect on small and large stages.

The book goes into detail about the early lives of the players, who came together from different tribes across Montana and Idaho to Fort Shaw, working together as sisters in sport. The initial five, assembled by Josephine Langley in 1903, were Belle Johnson, a Piegan; Emma Sansaver, a Chippewa-Cree; Minnie Burton, a Lower Shoshone; and Genie Butch and Nettie Wirth, both Assiniboine. Accompanying them to St. Louis in 1904 were their classmates Genevieve Healy, a Gros-Venture; Flora Lucero, a Chippewa; Rose LaRose, a Shoshone-Bannock; and Sarah Mitchell and Katie Snell, both Assiniboine. They ranged in age from 15 to 19 years old. Together, these ten were unmatched in ability among other girls their age and even girls older than them. At the Fair, they would play exciting, fast-paced exhibition scrimmages, five-on-five, to huge crowds, just like NBA superstars. After the Fair, they returned to Fort Shaw, and eventually parted ways as the school closed only six years later, in 1910.

What I loved about the book were the descriptions of the intense basketball games, and the girls’ relationships with one another and their own identities. Their journey across Montana through North Dakota and the Midwest to St. Louis, and their eye-opening experiences at the World’s Fair, were definitely the most interesting sections of the book. It was as if they were learning as much about the world as the world was learning about them. Even though we get some insight into the girls’ personalities, the first half of the book gets bogged down in details of the girls’ early lives, pre-Fort Shaw, as well as the lives of the superintendent and creator of the school, who was not Native American. When they start talking about the games, the book really picks up, and despite being non-fiction, keeps an exciting narrative all the way through the girls’ return to Fort Shaw from St. Louis.

What happened to the girls afterwards, though, was mostly disheartening with a few bright spots. Although one of them Nettie Wirth, was honored at the World’s Fair in 1962, and another, Genevieve Healy, lived until the age of 93, dying in 1981 as the last survivor of the team, most of them died in their thirties-fifties, including one under “questionable circumstances” and one who was unable to be tracked down entirely. Even sadder was the life of Minnie Burton, one of the team’s superstars (known for her shooting skills, so much so that spectators would chant “shoot, Minnie, shoot!”), who, although she did live to see many children and grandchildren, never spoke of her experience (imagine their surprise when they found out their grandmother was the LeBron James of the early twentieth century!) Fortunately for us, though, and for the authors, who found out about the girls from a team photo in a Montana archive, Emma Sansaver kept a journal and boxes of memories, which she passed down to her children and grandchildren, keeping the story from fading away into history. The authors did a mind-boggling amount of research for this book, contacting descendants of all ten of the players and people who knew them, ensuring that their legacy would live on.

Overall, I learned a ton about one of American history’s most unlikely and underrated footnotes, from a place I’ve neither been to nor even heard of. What these girls from the middle of nowhere did was groundbreaking, and even though all that’s left of Fort Shaw is an arch and a monument of a basketball – not even a museum – I’d still like to go visit it someday.

The idea that this sparked? Well, I had heard of this book and had it on my list for a little while, and ended up finding it in the Historical Society Library, where books are catalogued by country, region, and state. Finding it in the Montana section led me to want to read more from that section, and the Historical Society Library as a whole, with hopes to find more unusual but fascinating historical footnotes. I’m not sure how long I can keep up with this, but I’m going to try to find one historical hidden gem from each state. Now that Montana’s down, I’ve got 49 states to go, and rather than go in a specific order, I’ll ask Siri to give me a number between 1 and 50, and pick states that way.

As I typed that, I did that, and it gave me 7 – so Maryland, my home state, I guess I’ll be in your section tomorrow afternoon.

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Flip the Script Friday: George Shiels, The New Gossoon

This is a play that I thought I had read, but it turns out that I hadn’t, and it’s now public domain so I can do what I want, bwahahaha.

Before I finish writing this post, I just have to say that I’m really not loving this new block editor. I used to be able to toggle back to the old style, but now I can’t. I’m hoping to avoid either writing posts in Word or Google Doc and then copying and pasting them, but one of the reasons I’ve been avoiding blogging is because this editor just plain sucks. How do you manage to get around this problem?

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Flip the Script Friday: In-Sook Chappell, This Isn’t Romance

A busy semester is taking over my life. The shift key on my laptop sometimes doesn’t work. My phone loses charge like crazy. When things are falling apart, one world that I can escape to is that of a script. Picking up from where I left off over a month ago, here’s the romantic, eerie, and oddly compelling This Isn’t Romance by In-Sook Chappell.

Basics:

This Isn’t Romance by In-Sook Chappell premiered on 12 February 2009 at London’s Soho Theatre.

Characters:

  • Miso Blake – a Korean-born model living in London.
  • Han-Som Kim – her brother, living in Korea
  • Miss Lee – a translator
  • Naomi – a modeling agent
  • Jack Cash – a British hotel owner
  • Waitress at Cat Cafe/Bunny/Nurse

Setting/Plot:

Present day, Seoul, South Korea. Miso Blake has returned to Korea to reunite with her brother Han-Som, who she abandoned when they were orphaned as children. At first, the siblings reject each other. While attempting to repair their relationship, Miso has some unfortunate luck, and what can only be imagined as old habits and patterns start to emerge, with sex, money, and conflict between the siblings and others in their world leading them to a bizarre new start.

My Thoughts

Initially, I thought it was one type of play, then another, then another…but what is interesting about it is that all of the characters are unpredictable. Miso, while Westernized, unable to understand Korean, and hating herself, seems to subvert the stages of culture shock to quickly adapt (albeit awkwardly) to Seoul as if she hadn’t left and grown up in England. Han, initially lost in translation, becomes desirable and romantic to her, both her adversary, angry at her for leaving him, and her defender, driving her around and standing up for her against Jack Cash (because of course that is what the rich white man’s name is). There is something very hard to grasp about the play, as if it’s written from an insider’s and an outsider’s perspective at the same time. It’s a mix of The God of Small Things and Bonnie and Clyde.

Lost in Translation

After the initial scene, in which both Miso and Han get frustrated at the clueless translator Miss Lee, you’d think that the play would go nowhere since the two main characters do not even speak the other’s language. Even though we learn that Han does speak English, there are still the barriers between them, but at the same time, a relationship that emerges. This relationship translates interestingly on the stage, straddling the lines between Western sibling relationships, Korean sibling relationships, and incest. Although there are a few kisses, some touching, and implied sexual actions between the brother and sister, to me, there’s no definitive proof that the relationship goes any further than holding each other. At one point, one of them says “let’s not mention this” which means that something taboo might have happened, but it’s never overwhelmingly obvious, just two adults who happen to be related, seeing each other as adults for the first time and naturally somewhat curious. This can translate to incest, but considering the distance and the cultural relationships, it could be that they are communicating in their own language.

On the Run

Outside of the brother/sister love storyline, this play contains a lot of mysterious running. Miso clearly isn’t just in Seoul to find her brother, it is clear that she is there to stay, escaping something in London. Perhaps losing her money and having her credit card declined is a coincidence, or perhaps it is of her own doing, to erase her recent past. When Miso and Han are in Han’s apartment, they hear angry sounds from the hallway, and Han explains that he is in trouble as well, possibly with the mafia or people trying to hurt him. In the end, when Miso and Han escape from the Bunny Club after fighting with Jack and Bunny, it’s reminiscent of their origin story, which Miso remembers and relates to her brother, of how they were born on the island of Cheju-do, and ran away after being orphaned because the townspeople considered them to be unlucky. Even if they run from each other, as Miso did when she ended up adopted and living in England, their past is one thing that they continually seem to be running from. They are attempting to run back towards it, by reliving their childhood memories, but they can’t go back. In the final scene, it’s clear that Miso’s realization of this fact landed her in the hospital, and Han’s reassuring words in the final moments prove that he is still hoping for things to return to the way they once were, reminiscing of home and youth, still believing in something that will never happen.

How I’d Flip It

This play would be very difficult to stage, I think, and I can’t even imagine, at least right now, a picture of it in my mind. It seems more like a short film than a play. The scenes shit dramatically, from a hotel cafe, to a modeling agency, to Han’s apartment, to the Bunny Club, to a hospital. All in all, it’s a script woven together with a dense cultural coating, and I would be content to sit this one out and see what someone who is more familiar with Korean culture could do.

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Staying In and Getting Real Night, Part 8

It’s cold.

Like real cold.

Like real real REAL cold.

When it gets cold like this, everyone’s spirits are down, even mine. After I came home from school today, as much as I wanted to go back out and do something – go to the store, return something I bought, go to the mall – but once I was inside, it was like…the door is closed and it ain’t reopening until winter is over. Or at least that’s what it feels like, even though I have plenty of responsibilities and life and stuff to do and next week’s not looking to be much warmer.

As far as my writing goes, I’ve been plodding along. It’s been more slow and steady, getting things in here and there. I’m scared I’m not going fast enough, or that I don’t have enough information, but I am feeling that with each dissertation chapter I write (I’m in the middle of Chapter 4 now) I am more satisfied with the output. I’m definitely happier with my current unfinished chapter than I am with my previous chapters.

Class started this week, and while I’m of course so grateful to be employed, and doing something I enjoy, it’s still a lot of work. I thought it would be somewhat easier than last semester, but going back to the beginning feels like more of a struggle than it was. I keep asking myself, how did I do it last semester? Hopefully by this time next week things will be a little smoother and it’ll feel more like it did last semester.

I feel like I’m also taking less time to reflect, since everything this year so far has been so go-go-go for me. But since it is time to get real, let’s get real and reflect on something for a sec.

This should be the time in my life when I’m meant to feel the most free. I live my life, do my thing, have free time to pursue other activities, and have more of a degree of autonomy than ever before. It’s weird; I’m not sure what I’m trying to say, but something along the lines of – things are calm for the most part, but I feel the need to calm down is even more important. Not to screech to a stop, but somewhere in between. My apartment is nice and quiet, but my thoughts are definitely racing, and in so many different directions.

The real truth of tonight is that even though it’s quiet outside, you don’t know how loud it is on the inside.

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Flip the Script Friday: Qui Nguyen, Vietgone

It’s the second Friday of the year, and even though I’ve been pretty slack on Flip the Script Friday in the past, I’m committed to getting up more of these, and completing some older ones that still remain incomplete. Or getting rid of them entirely.

Maybe I should just start a Flip the Script blog. That’s a blog no one will read.

Anyway, because I am a selfish human, but a selfish human who recognizes the excellence of a good script, here’s my take on Vietgonea play with music by the ever-talented Qui Nguyen.

Vietgone Poster
Image Credit: Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, royalmtc.ca

Basics

Vietgone premiered on 4 October 2015 at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, California, USA.

Characters

  • Quang Nguyen – Handsome young Vietnamese pilot for the American army during the Vietnam War, 20s.
  • Tong Thi Tran – Sexy and strong-willed Vietnamese refugee, 20s.
  • Huong – Tong’s outspoken, critical, but flirtatious mother, 60s.
  • Nhan– Quang’s best friend. Boisterous but also sometimes more cautious, 20s.
  • Bobby– American soldier, white, 20s.
  • American Girl, American Guy, Asian Girl, Asian Guy, Captain Chambers, Flower Girl, Giai, Hippie Dude, Khue, Ninjas, Playwright, Protestors, Redneck Biker, Thu, Translator – Minor characters, played alternately by the actors who play Huong, Nhan, and Bobby.

Setting/Plot

1975, across America, but mostly in Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, with a few scenes in Vietnam. After a brief, presentational introduction by “the playwright”(he’ll be important later), two parallel plots occur. First, Quang and Nhan are driving on a motorcycle across America from Arkansas to California, with hopes of reuniting Quang with his wife and kids left behind in Vietnam (“Blow ‘Em Up”). Meanwhile, Tong and her mother Huong escape Vietnam, ending up in Fort Chaffee, where Tong plans to start over (“Gonna Start Again”). As Tong realizes how America’s not all that it seems, and Quang is forced to leave Vietnam for the USA, their distaste for their situations grow (“I’ll Make It Home”). Flashing back to the road trip to California, again, Quang finds solace in the drugs of the times (“Mary Jane”) before arriving home, where he squares off against his new acquaintance Tong as Act I ends. Act II rewinds to the scene where Quang and Nhan are doing drugs with a hippie couple, whose comments cause Quang to suddenly reexamine his own situation (“Lost a Brother”), and then we fast-forward again to where we left Quang and Tong at the end of Act I. We see Quang and Tong’s relationship “develop,” as it were, with a few more flashbacks to Quang’s trip and Tong’s life in Vietnam, and then we see the plots meet up: Quang tells Tong of his plans to drive a motorcycle across the country to California, to catch a plane back to Vietnam, and Tong tells Quang her plans to leave Fort Chaffee and move in with a foster family, and they part (“I Don’t Give A Shit”). Back in California, Quang realizes the mistake he’s making, so he returns to Fort Chaffee for Tong. In the final scene, we fast forward again, to the present, where an older Quang is being interviewed by his son, “the playwright.” A few gaps in the story are filled in, and then (presumably), the telling of Quang’s story begins…

Major Themes

My Prerogative

This play is all about perspective. From scene to scene, we never really know if what we’re seeing is accurate, and who’s telling the story – Quang, Tong, or the playwright. You sort of wonder where this is all going – the jumps in location, the forwards and backwards of time, the minor characters, the singing – but each scene adds a piece to the puzzle which is life for Vietnamese refugees in America during and after the war, and their identities (and those of their children, as we see with the playwright). I think that this theme of what’s real and what’s not really reflects the Vietnam War to a T; Americans weren’t hearing the real story when it was happening, and decades later, the children/grandchildren of refugees get one account of the war from their families who lived through it, and another version from an American-made history textbook in school.

What We Have Here…Is A Failure To Communicate

Going off the last theme of the nebulousness of the historiography of the Vietnam War, the lapses and irregularities in communication are also key to understanding the gestalt  of Vietgone. No Vietnamese is spoken in the play – only English – but the way that Nguyen chooses to have the characters express themselves is worth mentioning. From the very beginning, Nguyen tells the audience outright that the way to discern which characters are Vietnamese and which characters are American is that the Americans will be the ones speaking broken, stilted English (“Yee-haw! Git ‘er done! Cheeseburger, waffle fries, cholesterol!”). This draws on stereotype, but not in the way you might expect it to; rather, this reversal allows the audience to imagine the perspective (see above) of the Vietnamese characters who tell this story. Even Bobby, the American soldier, only speaks grammarlessly (“Town good food. Bring you can I.”) illustrating the lack of attention paid by the Americans to the very people they are supposed to be helping. The song breaks are very interesting; even though they’re inconsistent, they’re very telling of the characters’ inner thoughts. Which is what they’re designed to do, but it comes out in rap, which you wouldn’t expect from a play that mostly takes place in the disco and country-western era. My favorites are Tong’s “Gonna Start Again,” which really packs a punch and shows the gathers-no-moss, takes-no-prisoners attitude of the character, and Quang’s “Lost a Brother” which shows a vulnerability to this buff, tough guy dragging his friend around the country on a motorcycle. It’s not a traditional use of music in a play, but then again, nothing about this play is traditional.

A Sign of the Times

Usually, I stick with two major themes, but I wanted to discuss a third: time. After seeing this play and reading the script several times through, it took me some time to wrap my head around the timeline of events. For some people, this would be a major headache, but for me, it helped me make discoveries about the characters, and why they acted in the ways that they did – why Quang seemed to be living in his own world one minute and down on the ground in the next, and why Tong was so jaded and angry at the world. This definitely makes it a play that’s better when performed than just read, which is what it’s meant for, obviously, but I think that if I saw it again now, I would notice some very different things than I did the first time around.

My Thoughts

I saw Vietgone  last year in Minneapolis, with a good friend of mine in the role of Quang (he did really excellent work, by the way) and loved the whole experience. The theatre chose surtitles for the location changes (smart move) and had amazing sound/lighting effects. But as far as the script goes, despite the blurriness of the timeline, and the confusing minor characters, it’s fun, it’s fresh, it’s meaningful, and it’s just so different from what’s out there today. I wish that I could see this play again, somewhere, sometime, because it really deserves to be seen and analyzed by more people. This would be a really fun script for a round table read-and-study session. I feel like it would be hard to use this play in something like an intro curriculum, but it would fit into something on theatre from multi-ethnic American voices, which is a syllabus that I now have to create.

How I’d Flip It

The production I saw was pretty fantastic, and as I read the script, all I could imagine was what I saw on stage in Minneapolis. A traditional proscenium arrangement would still probably be the only way I could see it happening; I feel like a thrust stage would make it too pageant-y, and in the round, it would feel too claustrophobic. This is also a play which requires an all-Asian cast, without question. One thing I would love to see would be a brick wall as a backdrop, rather than the black scrim that the theatre in Minneapolis utilized. I don’t know why I feel this way, especially since this play isn’t urban at all. Maybe, actually, what I’m imagining, is something in the way of – fortifications or something. Something to reflect both the physical war in Vietnam, and the continuation of the war in cultural terms, between races and between generations (Tong/Huong, Quang/Playwright). The production I saw did not use much camo, if any, and I feel like those are the colors that I see, maybe with some red and yellow for the flag of Vietnam, but nothing too disco/flashy.