Book Review: “Undesirable Elements: Real People, Real Lives, Real Theater”

“Undesirable Elements: Real People, Real Lives, Real Theater” by Ping Chong

by Ping Chong
Theatre Communications Group: New York, 2012

Review by Kitty Drexel

A compilation of four selected scripts in the Undesirable Elements series by writer, director and producer Ping Chong as well as collaborator interviews and methodology. These poly-language scripts demonstrate the potential to combine the arts of storytelling, theater and poetry into a community building/affirming production. These performances are capable of reaching out to a broader theater audience (an audience perhaps jaded by conventional theater) to experience dramatic communication in ways that some artists only dream of. It is art that uses personal experience to reveal truths of the larger world community rather than using art to glorify aspects of “Other” within a community. Undesirable Elements offers a shocking exploration of the lives of social outsiders and presents them as whole, human people sometimes contrary to the perception of much of society. These works refreshingly present the players’ perspective without unintended bias. Because bias exists whether it is intended or not.

The original production of  Undesirable Elements was birthed in 1992 and focuses on the shared experiences of art from across the world. Each player represents their life history beginning with their name and an account of their births.  Through the elements that make them the same they reveal their differences. The next installment, Children of War,  explores the effects of violence on the lives of the young. UE 92/06 marks the 10 year anniversary of Undesirable Elements and the 30th anniversary of Ping Chong’s career as an independent artist. It asks the broader question of what is it to be American. Lastly, Inside/Out… Voices from the Disability Community, examines into the disabled community from a perspective of social justice and civil society. It is the most tender and courageous piece in this book as it delves deep into the universally shared emotions of body shame and insecurity.

Each piece was uniquely attuned to the community it is meant to serve. Chong also tailors each show to the needs of his performers. Chong has a gift. He takes the experiences and words from his cast and transcribes them into the production script. He took so that he could give threefold from the raw materials of experience that they provided to him.

What the cast is comfortable with sharing determines the direction of the show. In this way, the performers are in complete control of the creation as well as the performance. Performers are the subject, the inspiration, and the executors of their performance – a rare opportunity within the tradition of professional theater.

Undesirable Elements the book and the series speaks to an audience outside of traditional theater. It is an excellent source of outreach if your goal is to foster community through the revelation of truths. In Chong’s works, the recognition of struggle is the reward of performance. This is particularly shocking if one comes from a culture in which the opposite is normally true. These installments aren’t about theater or art; they are about the people that influence theater and the events that inspire artists.

Photo by Lia Chang. Mr. Chong looking sassy.

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