Jason Tseng

Theatre Review: "China: The Whole Enchilada"

Filed By Jason Tseng | August 20, 2008 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Media
Tags: Chinese gays and lesbians, Mark Brown, New York City, theatre

"We're three Caucasians
with a fascination
of the new sensation
called the Chinese nation!"

So starts the irreverently funny and not-so-politically-correct new musical, China: The Whole Enchilada, one of the many productions showing at the New York International Fringe Festival, which features independent, avant-garde, and homegrown theatre, and runs through August 24th. Three white guys engage in an irreverent musical journey through 4,000 years of Chinese history. It goes without saying that I approached this show with great trepidation. This would be incredibly funny, or incredibly offensive, I thought to myself as I took my seat.

China_02 (2).jpg

The musical, penned by Mark Brown and arranged by Paul Mirkovich, almost audaciously seeks to encompass the entire 4 millennia of Chinese history. Brown teeters on the edge of offense with his pun-filled and witty lyrics. In a style very reminiscent of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, Brown pokes fun at everything from the topsy-turvy and very bloody political history of early China ("Shang"), footbinding ("Lotus Shoes"), Genghis Khan ("Khan-Khan"), and even Tienanmen Square ("Gate of Heavenly Peace").

It's not all fun and games, for our Caucasian trio, comprised of Brad DePlanche (who plays the inadvertently racist dolt), Eric Hissom (who plays the politically correct China expert), and Philip Nolen (who plays the jingoistic war hawk, constantly cautioning of the impending Chinese world domination). Their ribald festivities are interrupted with a more somber discussion of several atrocities that occurred in Chinese history, including The Rape of Nanking, Mao's Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, and the Opium War.

What I found most compelling was that while the major focus of the piece was on China and its history, it was frequently contextualized by China's relationship with the United States. In particular, Brown's redux of racism in the US Immigration policy and the frequent portrayals of the villainous Chinese in American popular culture ("Evil is a Yellow Face").

While the writing and song were, on the whole, enjoyable, the production suffered from several technical issues with the microphones so that often times the actors had to resort to shout-singing in order to be heard. In addition, the venue at the Pace University Auditorium seemed like an odd fit for the production, which I believe might have been better suited in a more intimate environment.

My major concern walking into the theatre was that a musical about China, written by and performed by exclusively white men would be unavoidably racist. However China... succeeds its goals of providing a comprehensive whirlwind of Chinese history, at the same time critically identifying the faults of both the Chinese and the West in our shared history. On the whole, I found China: The Whole Enchilada funny, smart, surprisingly deep, and very enjoyable.

Rating (out of 5): ***

For a sampling of Brown's music, check out the play's website and their myspace.

China: The Whole Enchilada is performed at the Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts. Check out www.fringenyc.org for performance times.

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Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | August 20, 2008 9:38 PM

I hope it tours. I'd like to see it!

I wish I could see it in New York!

I'm the theatre editor of a local site (offoffoff dot com -- not the URL I attached to my name above, that's my personal blog) and have been intrigued by the responses to this show. I didn't get to see it but my reviewer found it very offensive.

Hey Frank,

Just read the review on your website. I actually agree with much of what Reese says in his review of the play. But, I really chose to lighten up and laugh at myself a little because it was clear the writer and the actors were very cognizant about how the work could easily be interpreted as racist.

True, it didn't have the best production value. But then again, it was a Fringe show, so I wasn't expecting a whole lot.

It did grossly simplify Chinese history (although it would be difficult not to simplify the history of any nation covering 4 millenia)... but conveying a detailed history of China wasn't necessarily the plays project. I think it was to expose western audiences to a history oft ignored or simply unknown. I don't mind the semi-offensive race jokes here and there (especially when I make asian jokes all the time) for the acknowledgment of much of the American - Chinese shared history and complex relationship.

I tried to have fun with it and not get bogged down, because I really don't think it was the intention to be racist (despite the albeit heavy-handedness of the discussion).

please boycott racism | April 23, 2011 10:00 PM

First, I've asked DC Arts Center not rent their space to the Landless "Theater" Company, given their poor judgment and utter lack of cultural sensitivity.

Second, I've asked DC Arts Center to forward this message to Landless "Theater" Company management and "actors" involved in the current production.

Third, I've asked Goldstar to please not advertise racist theater.

I wish only I had seen it sooner so that I could have told all of DC to please boycott this crass and offensive "work."

If this had been about "African Americans" and started with blackface and the "n word," wouldn't there be a public uproar?

The egregiously ignorant obese white man who wrote this should apologize to all Asian Americans for Japanese Amercian internment, Vincent Chin, and anyone who has ever actually experienced a hate/racist crime.

He should apologize to his adopted Chinese daughter, who should be given away for adoption.

I was beyond disappointed and shocked by this "musical's" unabashed racism and condescension, not only to Chinese/Asians (in the US and around the world) but also to the exploitation of the mostly white audience's ignorance and cultural illiteracy.

While making fun of immigrants speaking English as a second language, the "actors" were themselves unable to correctly pronounce any Chinese words, and the slideshow repeatedly projected multiple profanities (e.g., f***) in Chinese, which most of the ignorant/racist audience could not read.

In addition to a full refund of the cost of my ticket, parking, and time, I would like to
(a) meet in person with Landless Theater management and "actors" to understand their choice of this horribly offensive play; and, more importantly,

(b) ask Landless "Theater" Company to send this "script" to national Asian American advocacy/media organizations and post online for public comment.
(c) ask Landless "Theater" Company to donate ALL ticket sales from this racist/exploitative show to local organizations that actually try to help immigrants and/or fight hate crimes -- all of the money is tainted by the most egregious levels of white privilege and ignorance.

Thank you.