Zooming down musical memory lane, a Chicago theater examines Western culture's lyrical take on Asia and the Middle East and what it finds is unsettling and exhilarating.
The moment where Jamil Khoury's creation Re-Spiced: A Silk Road Cabaret crystallizes comes well into the piece. Oh it's hinted at in early bits of this trip through songs and musical theater by way of Asia and the Middle East. There's just a touch of what Khoury is trying to tell you in the Jaii Beckley's beautiful rendition of "Bali Hai," from the musical South Pacific. And you get a glimpse of it in Evan Tryone Martin's belting of Weezer's "Across the Sea," about a Japanese girl who writes a letter to a Western rockstar. But it isn't until Joel Kim Booster, who is Korean, saunters sexily onto the stage slyly singing "The Oriental,' by Status Quo that you really get it.
Our view of Asian and Middle Eastern culture is filled with racism. Let's just let the lyrics speak for themselves. "The Oriental," written in 2002 goes a little something like this....
Her name was Mia
from North Korea
I said, Come over
Bring your Land Rover
I don't like sushi
She said, that suits me
I take a shower
On every hour
Oh, the Oriental, very very special
If you ever get some
You want another one and another one
The Oriental, very very gentle
I got one for a cousin
Can you send me a dozen?
And as ensemble cast member Danny Bernardo pointed out, "That song wasn't written all that long ago."
The idea of Asian or Middle Eastern females as exotic, playthings to be used with abandoned and admired only for their submissiveness seems to run a blue streak through our contemporary and historical songs about Asiatic women. The idea of Asiatic men being nonsexual and passive also is a river that runs through our songs. After 95 minutes of listening to what Western songwriters had to say about the Far East I was left dumbfounded.
Who knew so many of my favorite ditties were so racist? From Ice Cube's Black Korea which denigrates Korean business owners in black neighborhoods, to - OMG family-friendly Randy Newman advocating selling Korean parents to lazy, underachieving teens to set them straight, we in America have a problem with the "others," those non black and white. At least our music seems to say so.
Sure I understood there was tension between black and Asians who own stores in black neighborhoods and yes and I know the penchant for white, militant, women-hating dudes to order brides from the Philippines in an effort to get a "tamer," woman, but it wasn't until Khoury put them all together in a string from Walt Whitman poems in the 1860s to that shockingly racists, misogynistic and horrible Status Quo song of the new millennium that I realized the depth of American's horrible perceptions about people from the Middle East and Asia.
And that's exactly the point of Silk Road Rising, the theater which put on the play. Founded by Khoury, who is the creative director and Malik Gillani, the executive director, Silk Road Rising aims to showcase playwrights of Asian and Middle Eastern backgrounds as well as tell the stories of this little observed section of the great big melting pot. It's named after the Silk Road, the ancient 4,000 mile stretch of trading posts that ran through Asia, Africa and Europe.
Re-Spiced points out our subtle yet insidious racism against these Silk road cultures brilliantly! Without preaching, the cabaret slowly lets the material speak for itself. And to have Asian, Middle Eastern and African American actors singing songs like "The Oriental," "They Don't Make Jews like Jesus, Anymore," and "Turning Japanese," by the Vapors, just makes the punch that much saltier, no lecture, finger-pointing or yelling necessary. I joyously clapped along to the song "One Night in Bangkok," when it played during The Hangover 2 movie but I was left embarrassingly trying to stop my foot from tapping when they played it in Re-Spiced. Still we weren't all bad, who knew "Rock the Casbah," by The Clash, was so deep? And there was some beautifully poignant sentiments our Westerners had about our Eastern neighbors including the beautiful, peaceful and loving "Shalom," song from Milk and Honey and the fun though racy "Shakalaka Baby," from Bombay Dreams.
Not to say Re-Spiced is perfect. The musical numbers were interspersed with spoken excerpts from famous works. Some of the works fit in nicely as General MacArthur's "Lessons from Hiroshima," which proceeded a section on war but others like excerpts from Gustave Flaubert's Madam Bovary left a bit to be desired.
No matter you didn't have to follow the flow of everything to get the gist of what Re-Spiced was trying to accomplish - to clue us in on the fact that when it comes to Asian and Middle Eastern culture, we've got a lot of work to do folks. And in that, they did succeed.
What: Re-Spiced: A Silk Road Cabaret
When: Runs through May 6
Where: Silk Road Rising www.silkroadrising.org
(Video courtesy of Silk Road)