Yes We Khan
Caution: Supersensitive sorts need not attend Theater LaB Houston's production of Mark Brown's China: The Whole Enchilada. The show is about as un-PC as it gets. Played by "three white guys" dressed in coolie hats, among other offensive garb, the show covers the history of China at breakneck speed, galloping through dynasties and thousands of years as it pokes fun at ethnic stereotypes and the folks who buy into them.
Most of this is pretty silly stuff. In the title tune, "China: The Whole Enchilada," the word "asinine-a" is used to describe the show — and it sums up this project fairly well. Still, I found myself grinning, if not outright laughing, through most of the goofy shenanigans. The "Disclaimer Song" that opens the show informs us that this whole thing is going to be "pretty lowbrow," and it definitely hits the mark.
But the two hours manage to cover a fair amount of Chinese history, and we learn a thing or two. Even as the audience is laughing, tunes such as "Khan-Khan" (which does include a can-can) instruct us on the lives of Genghis and his son Kublai Khan — that Ricardo Montalbán also appears is only icing on the cake. We also learn about the Mooncake Festival of 1368, one of the most famous legends in Chinese culture. The tyrannical Mongols were supposedly overthrown when paper messages were baked into mooncakes to be eaten at the festival. These tiny notes to the people started the revolt that led to the beginning of the Ming Dynasty. We also learn that Confucius came up with the "do unto others" concept 500 years before Christ was born. And in 220 BC, the Great Wall, not unlike the one we're attempting to build today between Texas and Mexico, was started.
Folded into this traditional history are bits and pieces from twentieth-century American culture that explain how we codify our stereotypes. Characters like Ming the Merciless from the Flash Gordon comic strip series appear, underscoring the way Americans have vilified the "mysterious" Chinese over the decades.
There are some serious moments. One of the strongest comes during the song "Lotus Shoes," which starts off as a very funny moment about a little girl getting her feet bound by her mother and grandmother. The song evolves into a discussion about the treatment of women in China, where an estimated 50 million girls have been killed — a number that makes China's loss into the single biggest in human history. There is also a terrific scene in which we get a quick summary of the ever-changing American policy toward the Chinese. In 1850, they had to pay a tax to enter the country; in 1859 they weren't allowed to send their children to school in San Francisco; in 1882 they were the first people to be declared "undesirable" for immigration.
Of course, there are also all those amazing inventions. Everything from ice cream to toilet paper to spaghetti came from China. And no, the Chinese did not invent water torture — that was Harry Houdini.
We get all these lessons in one entertaining package, directed and choreographed with a sublimely silly sensibility by Linda Phenix. Jimmy Phillips, Josh Wright and Kregg Dailey inhabit their characters with varying degrees of goofiness. Phillips plays the xenophobe who's terrified of the Chinese. Wright is the guy with common sense, pointing out from the very beginning that it would be better to do the whole show without embarrassing accents. And Dailey is the oaf who doesn't always understand everything they are singing about. He mixes up present-day reality with the past and voices many of our wrongheaded misconceptions about Chinese culture.
Boris Kaplun's set is simple — a big red map of China on the backstage wall is flanked by a couple of black-and-white chairs that get moved around as needed. The music is all canned, and the lights don't do much more than go on and off. As simple as all this is, the show works. The dancing is silly, the singing is generally good, the script is amusing and these actors are clearly whooping it up as they speed their way through the history of one of the world's oldest and most complex cultures.
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