“I used to watch Kung-Fu. [..] I always thought it should have been called ‘That Guy’s Not Chinese’.”
– Margaret Cho
True story: after watching this show, I stepped out into the PianoFight bar to drink and chat with fellow theatre-folk, as one does. At one point, a colleague and I chatted about Shotgun’s recent production of Annie Baker’s The Flick (currently concluding its extended run). He liked the show, I didn’t. Amongst my many, many problems with the show was the fact that it had “one of the Whitest-written Black characters I’ve ever fucking seen”.
Isn’t that always the way? If you’re not a Straight White dude, your story is either never told or it’s told from the point-of-view of someone White. That’s why The Lion King is the Whitest “Africa” story in the history of the Western world. It’s why recent films about Miles Davis, Bruce Lee, and Thurgood Marshall are all told through the White guy’s eyes. And it’s why when The Good Earth – the story of a Chinese family – was adapted to film, legendary actress Anna Mae Wong couldn’t even get a meeting with the producers (instead, they cast the considerably non-Asian actors like Luise Rainer and Paul Muni).
Then came KML. Yes, KML stepped up to finally put right what more than 300 years of Western literature, theatre, and cinema have all done wrong: they’ve come to tell Asian stories from an actual Asian perspective. How ‘bout that? Whereas I last wrote about Phil Wong in a show where his ethnicity is noticeably ignored, he now directs a show where the ethnic origins of the writers (led by local comedian Tirumari Jothi), cast, and characters are inescapable.
And, as the title suggests, they do so with the intention of dismantling that most back-handed of “complimentary” stereotypes:
And as I sat in the middle of a 90-or-so-per-cent Asian audience, my Black ass was all about this plan.
The show hits the ground running with an opening sketch about a White dude who fetishizes Asian women, leading into a song dismantling Asian-based sexual stereotypes. Thus begins an hour of inside jokes about disappointed parents, hardcore gamers, and losing out on roles to Scarlett-fucking-Johansson. It’s the sort of show where a bunch of Asian “bros” get American tattoos in a language they don’t read (one says “Dickhole”). It’s the sort of show where two “Tiger Moms” battle one another, a la Street Fighter. Yes… this is that show.
When the “weakest” sketch is the Jaws theme accompanying a foreboding mother’s shoe, then you know you’ve got a lot going for you. I don’t believe I’ve heard a single track of K-Pop, but having its sudden popularity attributed to someone opening Pandora’s Box is an explanation I can accept. There’s also a recurring series of sketches in which historical Asian figures (Gandhi, Genghis Khan, and Chairman Mao) sell their disparate world views – and a few cheap wares – as contemporary social media “influencers”. It relies on puns and I ain’t mad at it.
Yes, there’s nary an Asian(-American) insecurity that isn’t exacerbated, nor is there as aspect of White privilege unaddressed. It’s a show about turning yellowface on its ear, and for the most part, it succeeds. Incorporating true stories – like that of Bhagat Singh Thind, an Indian man who tried to pass for White – not only entertain, but educate. That’s great, but those moments feel as if the creators were under pressure to do both. Not likely from KML’s producers, but – if I may speculate – that writers had so much ground they wanted to cover that they were at pains to try and fit it all into a single hour-long sketch comedy show. Institutional racism’ll do that to ya.
But if a shitty Austin Powers sequel can use the “you all look alike” trope, then a collection of Asian writers and performers can do it better as they tear it apart.
And it’s not a bad collection of performers. Tasi Alabastro is someone whose name I’ve seen on lots of work over the years, but whom I don’t think I’ve ever met or seen perform before? He particularly stood in this show when he played one-of-three Asian “bros” acting like a bunch of White dudes at Coachella (not that I’ve ever been to Coachella). He’s joined in that sketch by Andrew Chung (with whom I’ve worked before, so it’s no surprise he’s a reliable performer) and the dashing Byron Guo, the latter of whom excels as both a Rod Serling-esque documentary host and millennial son surprised to find his mother is a fan of Queer Eye.
Imran G seems to simply pop up unexpectedly for each sketch he’s in, but he’s welcome in each one – particularly in a round of “the dozens” that becomes mean-spirited in a way you wouldn’t expect. Similarly, actress Marisa Hankins almost steals the entire show as both an ancient spirit (one particular of the alma mater of those who summon her) and as a daughter whose extended call from her mother takes up the show’s final act. Even if Isabel To didn’t have a blinding turquoise mane, she’d easily distinguish herself as a wig-swapping chameleon. When you can pull off “bad boy in a bar”, a series of angry mothers, and friggin’ Pikachu altogether, you’ve got a lot going for you.
One of the running themes of the show is how Asians are held to a high standard that’s inhuman, a standard to which they hold other Asians. When Trump dismissed Latinxs as “bad dudes” sending “rapists and murderers” into the US, and Africa as full of “shithole countries”, he used the same racist rhetoric that led to the stereotype of Asian as a so-called “model minority”, suggesting that if they can do it, why can’t you other darkies? Both tropes represent two sides of the same trick coin.
Model Minority Report is an imperfect show. Not a bad one by any means – quite the contrary, it’s got a lot of great stuff in it. What keeps it from perfection is that it’s so eager to counter centuries “Yellow Fever” hysteria that its creators feel obligated to cover each and every corner of it. To the great credit of Wong, Jothi, and company, they do a damn-good job lampooning the topics they do cover.
Model Minority Report is scheduled to run until the 28th of September at PianoFight in San Francisco, and until the 5th of October at the Dragon Theatre in Redwood City.
The show runs roughly one hour with no intermission.
For tickets, show information, and location, please visit the production’s official site here.