By Jenna Purcell & Ashley Glazebrook
Arts Reporter & Diversity Reporter
“Everyone’s a little bit racist sometimes.”
More than just a popular jingle from the play “Avenue Q,” racism was a concept both acknowledged and questioned in Rainbow Theatre’s “Ching Chong Chinaman.” While the group is known for making a cultural splash on the theatrical scene, the cast of “Chinaman” tested the group’s holistic image with a piece that shook the foundation on which it was built.
The production’s co-director and fifth-year UC Santa Cruz student, Nick Chan, said that Rainbow Theater hoped that producing such a play would broaden its appearance as a diverse group.
“We really took the PC image of Rainbow and slapped it in the face with this play,” Chan said.
Rainbow Theatre, established in 1994, is a theater group dedicated to presenting and embracing the performance art of different cultures, as well as encouraging diversity and awareness among UCSC students. Chan said this often provokes serious, intellectual performances, a pattern he hoped to break this time around.
“[The play] is very satirical, where most of the pieces in Rainbow are serious and analytical,” Chan said.
Rainbow’s production of “Ching Chong Chinaman” provided a caricature of a Chinese-American family overrun by assimilation. A lively yet obtuse character, Ed Wong, serves as the father. His interests include golf, Mexican food and neglecting his sensitive, subservient housewife Grace.
Their children — Desdemona, an overachieving Princeton-bound brat, and “World of Warcraft” champion Upton — help complete the glossy portrayal of a “whitewashed” Asian-American family.
All seems right with the Wong family until network-savvy Upton recruits an indentured servant from China named Jin Quiang to complete his chores and homework.
Jin Quiang — quickly renamed “Ching Chong” by the ignorant family — is culture shock personified, speaking only Chinese in a home where even chopsticks are a lost cause. Jin Quiang manages to wreak havoc in the Wong household, forcing the family to question their identities and intentions.
While a cookie-cutter happy ending seems inevitable, the play ends with very little resolution and a multitude of unanswered questions. Family relations are still distant and terms like “chinkie” are still thrown around without much thought.
For cast member and UCSC second-year Rachelle Foronda, this uneasiness suited the play’s overall purpose.
“I hope the audience noticed that none of the racial problems were solved,” Foronda said. “I want them to look at how we are presenting racism and realize that it’s still a problem and that we do need to talk about it.”
For many cast members, the show’s message surpassed a moral finger wagging at racism and took a plunge into social guidelines.
“We’re questioning racism itself,” said fourth-year Ivan Huang, who plays Jin Quiang. “What kind of standard do we use to gauge what’s right and wrong?”
Chan, along with co-director and third-year student Claudette Santiago, chose to present racism in an ambiguous fashion, provoking unorthodox discussions on diversity and cultural ignorance.
In response to the droll, racist comments of the father character, including the brazen “We all look alike!” attitude that so many Americans adopt, Chan hoped the audience walked away with questions, or even some wisdom from Ed.
“We’re always separating ourselves by regions and countries, but we’re all on the same earth,” Chan said. “[Ed] sounds like an idiot, but he makes sense sometimes.”
For Santiago, the show’s ability to address the many aspects of racism helped to distinguish it from other Rainbow pieces.
“This piece allows us to look at racism on another level,” Santiago said. “It’s important for audiences to see internalized racism, to see Asians being racist toward other Asians. This is an aspect [of racism] that Rainbow hasn’t really addressed.”
Asian-on-Asian discrimination was a common thread throughout the show. Ed justifies his racial slurs toward Jin Quiang with “I’m Chinese, so I can say it. It’s like the ‘n’ word.” Upton commissions Jin Quiang to perform his grunt work, and Desdemona, desperate for a memorable Princeton personal statement, abuses her power over a Korean orphan for her own benefit.
While the prevalence of racism might have shocked or offended audiences, cast member fourth-year Airene Tomboc believes it was both necessary and realistic.
“The racism is over-exaggerated in a very ‘Harold and Kumar’ sort of way,” Tomboc said. “Racism is funny in this piece because people do actually talk like this in private. We’re just bringing it into the light.”
While acknowledging the power and gamble of using racism in a performance, Paul Justiniano, a fifth-year who plays Ed, said that conviction was key to the cast’s success.
“We understood that we had to err on the side of caution [with racism], but there also needed to be a strength behind it,” Justiniano said. “I mean, if you’re gonna say ‘fuck,’ say it with purpose, you know?”