Wednesday 29 May 2013

Yellow Face review: triumph for David Henry Hwang launches London's new Park Theatre

Pic by Simon Annand

My review of Yellow Face in the Morning Star 
4 stars

Tuesday 28 May 2013 by Anna Chen
Yellow Face
Park Theatre, London N4

This smart and savvy comedy delivers a knock-out blow to any still-entrenched belief in certain crepuscular crannies of theatre land that east Asians can't produce culture.

Racism no longer has an outlet in blackface performance but yellowface lingers as a method of corralling an ethnic minority into a ghetto, depriving them of jobs and creative participation.

That's the context of the Obie award-winning Yellow Face, an admittedly autobiographical indulgence by David Henry Hwang which tells a funny and fast-paced story of his perennial war against the surreptitious devices used to keep Asians in their place, in particular the 1990s yellow-peril hysteria targeting President Bill Clinton and threatening to engulf American-Chinese people.

Having burned out as the "poster child for political correctness" in the battle of Miss Saigon - when American-Asian actors protested noisily against white British actor Jonathan Pryce reprising his part as the Asian engineer for the Broadway transfer of the musical - Tony award-winning playwright DHH (Kevin Shen) buckles down to work on his next play Face Value.

He inadvertently casts white actor Marcus G Dahlman (Ben Starr) in the leading Asian role and the subsequent cover-up reveals much more than it conceals.

Too sophisticated to lecture, Hwang skilfully navigates a series of real-life anti-Chinese events including the accusation that his banker father Henry (David Yip) is aiding an enemy - China - and the failed prosecution of Dr Wen Ho Lee as a nuclear spy for Beijing, harking back to the Rosenbergs' execution.

In reversing the situation and trying to manipulate his star Dahlman - "dollman," geddit? - Hwang exposes the absurdity of judging people by their skin.

It's the Siberian Jew Dahlman, building a successful career on an erroneous assumption that he is part Asian, who pleads: "It doesn't matter what someone looks like on the outside."

Hwang has long been respected as a writer of depth with an impressive body of work permeated by a progressive political perspective. In Yellow Face he argues that we should all be part of "the big song" as experienced by Dahlman, who finds peace and an identity with the Dong tribe of China.

Director Alex Sims mounts a technically sharp, elegant and enormously effective minimalist staging in-the-round for an excellent cast who mostly play multiple roles.

Actor-producer Kevin Shen pulls off several firsts with this British premiere of Yellow Face at north London's brand-new Park Theatre.

Following last year's still-rumbling RSC The Orphan Of Zhao controversy, Hwang's long-awaited theatrical resurfacing in Britain after a couple of decades provides a welcome addition to the debate around representation of east Asians in this country's culture.

Runs until June 16. Box office: (020) 7281-8813

See Anna's Morning Star feature on David Henry Hwang

Monday 27 May 2013

Baby great tit rescued from cat and fed by its mother

Oh, the heartbreak of trying to save a tiny life.

We even named him ... or her. That's how hopeful we were that we could save Cartman the baby great tit. Rescued from the neighbour's cat, Cartman looks robust enough but something's wrong and (s)he can't fly. To save it from cats and foxes, we keep it indoors overnight in a tub with water, small worms and seed but (s)he's too young to feed itself.

Put back out in the garden the next day, Cartman's mother finds and feeds it. This goes on until dusk when we take it back inside.

Sadly, (s)he doesn't survive this second night.

Saturday 25 May 2013

David Henry Hwang comes to London: Yellow Face at the Park Theatre

Anna Chen and David Henry Hwang in the Park Theatre (Thanks to Kathryn Golding for snapping this one)
Anna and Dr Amanda Rogers at Thursday's Yellow Face press night
Amanda and Charles Shaar Murray on press night
Kevin Shen (who plays DHH in Yellow Face) introduces today's Q&A session with David Henry Hwang and Dr Amanda Rogers
Amanda and David in the Yellow Face Q&A
David Henry Hwang
To the spanking new Park Theatre in north London for the British premiere of David Henry Hwang's Yellow Face only 20 years after David's Tony-award winning M Butterfly which starred Anthony Hopkins was a smash hit on Broadway and beyond. (As he wrote one of the few parts for east Asian women, practically all young actresses have played the chilly Comrade Chen in various productions ... including me!)

It's a sparkling stylish comedy, witty, clever and very tightly directed and acted. And it's made a timely appearance in the wake of the RSC The Orphan of Zhao controversy, having something to say about the absurdity of judging human beings by their skin.

Actor Kevin Shen, who produced and stars as the leading character (a certain award-winning playwright called "DHH"), said his production company had offered it to all the theatres who turned it down on the grounds it wasn't "commercial", so thank heavens for the Park Theatre for having the vision to take it on.

My review will be published in the Morning Star on Wednesday. I gave it four stars.

You have until 16th June to catch it.

Review, interview, South China Morning Post column, and video of the Q&A to come ...

Friday 24 May 2013

Crosstown Lightnin' "Werewolves of London" at the Black Velvet

A culture-rammed week began with Crosstown Lightnin' at the Black Velvet club in West Kensington last Saturday 18th May, supporting Bex Marshall and her band.

Here's Crosstown Lightnin's encore with special guest Stephen Dale Petit. Charles Shaar Murray, Buffalo Bill Smith, Marc Jefferies and Pete Miles play "Werewolves of London" by Warren Zevon.

Video by Anna Chen.

Ellen Gallagher, fat ladies and Pan sex with goat: my week of London kulcher


In the cultural whirl that's been my life this past week, I've seen not only the sold-out sexily titled Life and Death: Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition (on until 29 September), I also caught Ice Age Art now in its final weeks: both at the British Museum. Some of the ice-age artefacts go back 31,000 years and, as the curators blast out from the posters, it does indeed mark the arrival of the modern mind.

Female forms abound. Closer to Beryl Cook than Vogue, them were the days when being voluptuous (or as we called it in Hackney, "podgy") made you an object of beauty and the muse of artists. I wonder if those cavemen slept with their models.

The funniest exhibit to have survived the volcanic wrath of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 is the statue of Pan shagging a goat — a garden ornament, it is believed, and certainly one I'd have frightening the squirrels in my back yard any day. It's a nanny, not a male goat the god of the wild is penetrating, so, hey, at least Pan's not GAY, thus preserving some decorum for the elderly ladies and school parties clogging up the aisles. However, I bet she's under age, thereby opening up another can of net-curtainland anxieties.

But she looks happy enough, and Pan has the manners to take her missionary stylee rather than doggy, so he's showing respect and not a little affection in the way he's playing with her beard. If a guy tugs fondly at your facial hair while making sweet lurve instead of demanding electrolysis, you know you're in with a second date. Up close enough for my breath to steam up the glass case, the wickedness in his smile is achieved with such subtlety that I could swear he winked at me.


At Tate Modern, I did one last circuit of the Lichtenstein on its last day, quite liked the Saloua Raouda Choucair but fell head over heels in love with Ellen Gallagher who I'd never even heard of before.

Motifs of boggle eyes and big grinning thick-lipped mouths run through her early work and are immediate clues as to her identity as a mixed-race black woman working in the US. She's funny, beautiful and political so that's my fandom sewn up.

Three vast canvasses made up of hundreds of original mid-20th century newsprint magazine adverts targeting American black people sport new hairdos courtesy of the artist made out of bright yellow plasticene in an amusing and imaginative series of ludicrous formations that aren't half as mad as the neuroses those magazines were feeding.

One of my favourite pictures, Abu Simbel, is a mucked around photogravure of the three giant statues of pharoahs sitting outside one of the pyramids. Again, thick minstrel lips, broad noses and boggle eyes are stuck on the pharoahs' faces. Heads of murdered black men tumble in a heap at the base, two nurses smile and three tiny men in suits point feebly at a flying saucer made of yellow plasticene, turquoise fun-fur and spangles shooting its death rays.

Those nurses are referenced throughout Gallagher's earlier work but it wasn't until I read the notes for another big canvas and my overall favourite, An Experiment of Unusual Opportunity (2008), that I realised the significance.

The experiment referred to is the notorious Tuskegee experiment where hundreds of poor black men were deliberately infected with syphylis and observed over 40 years from 1932 with no medical treatment even when penicillin was found to be a cure. Nurse Eunice Rivers was the trusted intermediary between the men and an insane medical establishment.

This work is an abstract, like several other of the 100 or so works on show, made of hundreds of paper strips soaked in blue ink to varying intensities so that the whole surface ripples, and contrasted with  oranges, ochres and umbers. It is the most beautiful thing to look at yet represents one of the ugliest events in modern American history. The reproductions don't do it justice so do see the real deal.

There's a ton more from Gallagher in the huge AxME restrospective, with her tendrilly marine drawings most notable. Don't miss it.

Coming up, Luke Bedford and the London Sinfonietta, and David Henry Hwang's Yellow Face at London's new Park Theatre.

Monday 20 May 2013

Crosstown Lightnin' and Bex Marshall at Black Velvet: pix

Crosstown Lightnin' played their first gig in a while, the first of many more the way things are looking.

Charles Shaar Murray, Buffalo Bll Smith, Marc Jefferies and Pete Miles were tight as a gnat's bum and rocked the swanky new W14 venue, Black Velvet, with their punky blues.

Bex Marshall headlined with her 4-piece blues band. She has an amazing textured voice — from gravelly and snarling to sweet and melodic, and she wields a mean resonator. It's an awesome full-blooded BIG sound from a home-grown Brit.

Special mention to her backing singer who gave a soaring gospelled up acapella "New York, New York".

Some pix here. Videos of Crosstown Lightnin' to come.

VIDEO: Bird Call Blues

Saturday 11 May 2013

"Burning words full of life and truth": review of my poetry in the Morning Star

Quasi gal, quasi Byronic. It's official — I write like the poetry dudes of old.

I'm delighted and a bit stunned to read a wonderful review of my poetry collection, Reaching for my Gnu, in today's Morning Star, written by writer and revolutionary teacher Chris Searle.

Chris says of my poetry:

"... a strange rendezvous of language, wit, and the imagination."

"She fully integrates the movingly personal, the vibrantly social and the diablolically political."

"Her rhyming is frequently quasi-Byronic, full of surprise and acerbic invention and her images, in their oft-times grotesquerie — as in poems like Orange Tone — carry a similar visual revulsion as those brilliantly caricatured by the Morning Star’s cartoonist Martin Rowson."

"But the most compelling poem in this collection is Big Society: On A Conversation In The Foundling Museum. 'We grow poorer and yet/ we birth millionaires like stars in a nebula,' she declares and her final message shines out for us all: 'You who are going under, heal/Take back from those who steal./Rise [in]to the light of the sun.' Burning words, full of life and truth."

I remember Chris from when I was a kid at the summer school he ran in a former fire station in the East End's Roman Road (now a Buddhist temple). He was already a legend having inspired the pupils up the road at Sir John Cass and Redcoat School to write poetry which he published in a book, Stepney Words. Shocked by the literary inner landscape of its working class pupils, the school governors sacked him and the kids promptly went out on strike until he was reinstated.

He then cast his net wider across other schools and released more young inner worlds in Fire Words, published by Jonathan Cape. Two of my poems got in. They were juvenilia (and, typical for me, political) but the important thing was that being encouraged to write and then published unleashed something, like a catch being lifted from a door. Feelings poured out with structure, purpose and confidence.

Children from Hackney weren't supposed to have a view of the world and our own experience in it. But here we were, writing, observing, learning, honing and perfecting.

He was one of two teachers who saw something in me and helped me access it — and that represents about the best you can do with another human being. This was sadly against a background of people — including some teachers and leftists, then as now — who tried to bash it back in. Luckily, the spirit endures and sometimes even flourishes.

So when I hear the word culture, I do now reach for my gnu.

Friday 10 May 2013

In the Ai of the beholder: my theatre review of The Arrest of Ai Weiwei

The Arrest of Ai Weiwei
Hampstead Theatre, London NW3

If martial arts functions by using your opponents' weight against them, then artist Ai Weiwei must be the Bruce Lee of annoying the hell out of the Chinese government.

He's transformed dissidence into performance art, rendering him embarrassingly effective in resisting official persecution.

Howard Brenton's play The Arrest of Ai Weiwei adds more art-fu to the mix, dramatising Ai's account of an 81-day incarceration following his 2011 arrest at Beijing airport. Bored into near-submission by paralysing inactivity punctuated only by shouty interrogations, Ai's struggle to rebut charges of undefined "crimes" is complicated by his accusers having no idea what they are either.

The longeurs created by depicting tedium in real time are thankfully offset by moments of black comedy from the excellent all-east-Asian cast.

Benedict Wong's masterly performance as this bewildered victim of state bullying fleshes out Brenton's outlines, while guard Andrew Koji's metallic thousand-yard stare at a two-inch distance was the funniest scary thing of the night.

The plods' art epiphany — that it is the viewer's response to the art object rather than the object itself that Ai values — prompts his single joyous outburst at human connection achieved.

Brenton's play is part meditation on the power of art, and part deification of Ai Weiwei the artist — or "artworker" as his yelling persecutors keep reminding him in the confines of his cramped cell, a brilliant mobile installation by Ashley Martin Davis, complete with the collapsing walls on every critic's wish-list for China.

A key problem of having a passive protagonist is that there's little to help us penetrate the symbol and behold the man: not only an enemy of the state but also his own worst enemy. So what drives him?

One admirable quality is that he bites the hand that feeds, sending Chinese officialdom into a hyperventilating tizzy.

Given the prestigious assignment of co-designing the Bird's Nest Stadium, he'd openly criticised the Beijing Olympics, inviting the animosity of a Communist Party hoping he'd take the bait and fall into line.

However, being on the side of the angels doesn't make you an angel, and being an iconoclast shouldn't turn you into an icon.

Brenton's Weiwei is simply too saintly for someone who wittily runs rings around the authorities with all the confidence his exalted class confers. He's a mischievous hedonist, but no such humanising flaw manifests in this Christ-like Weiwei.

Greater confidence in the audience's ability to engage across his faultlines might have rescued Brenton from creating him as an object of pure beauty and harmony — as decried by the Big Ai himself.

The climactic action of an inspiring final speech is the smashing of a neolithic pot, reenacting Ai's famous 'performance' signifying that individual human souls are priceless, rather than classically beautiful but safe objects prized by the party's art commissars.

Some might read this as a brutal demonstration of the overriding power of private ownership — an assertion of property rights over shared historic artefacts via economic power.

Flattering both Ai Weiwei and the play's western audience, the production and cast performance are considerably better than this slack, superficial and complacent piece deserves.

Runs at the Hampstead Theatre until May 18. Box office: 020 7722 9301

Monday 6 May 2013

Punk thrives in China: was I first British Chinese punk?

Love this piece about the punk movement in China.

I think I was the first home-grown Chinese punk in Britain, hanging out at Vivienne Westwood's shop Sex as a kiddie where she made me my first catsuit (pix above and below).

It was my armour, a shiny carapace that expressed my champion alienation as a working class Chinese kid in Hackney with added teenage angst. I wore that catsuit to shreds, shocking the locals as I did the weekly shop in Tescos.

The only other east Asian women punks I can remember from that era were Thai-born Suzie Dixon (with whom I hung out with the Boomtown Rats and the Sex Pistols) and, a bit later, Annabella Lwin (Anglo-Burmese) who Malcolm McLaren made lead singer of Bow Wow Wow in 1980.

I'd be really interested to know who else was around. I'm guessing that there must have been some Chinese punks in America following the New York Dolls in the 1970s. But in the punk genealogical branch that started in Vivienne's King's Road shop, I think I'm the first. So if you know of any others, please do let me know.

I auditioned to be a backing singer for the legendary punk band London SS — Mick Jones, Eunan Brady and then Tony James and a plethora of punk musicians — which became the Clash. London SS never got off the ground (stupid name that we'd hoped was short for London Social Security but probably wasn't) so we'll never know if the auditions were a brilliant way for the fellas to meet gurls in those early days before stardom struck. But it was a fascinating showcase and playground for the punk explosion that followed.

Pix of Anna by Bob Carlos Clarke

Thursday 2 May 2013

May Day poetry: Credit Crunch Suicide from Anna Chen

Had a lovely gig last night at the Morning Star's May Day celebrations in Kilburn, London.

Also playing, singer songwriter Sean Taylor, a wonderful guitarist. Q Magazine called him, "A bluesey devotional intensity that rightly draws comparisons to John Martyn". And they;'re right.

Khamis and J-Mac were our DJs for the night, while Attila the Stockbroker headlined with his angry punky poetry. Very funny.

I performed my poems. First video up — Credit Crunch Suicide — about our delightful bankers. Thanks to Charles Shaar Murray for camera duties.

Anna reads Margaret Thatcher Died at the Ritz

Anna reads I am Rich and You are Poor: lines on dead Chinese cocklepickers and their rich benefactors