According to Ping Chong, the problem with most political theater is that it's too preachy. It focuses too much on the message, ignoring form, art and humor. “It's just ranting,” he says.
For the last 14 years, the internationally acclaimed director, choreographer and visual artist has crafted a series of political theater projects that adopts a subtler and more satisfying artistic approach. The first production of Undesirable Elements was staged in 1992 in New York City's Artists' Space. Chong brought in a bunch of random people from a variety of backgrounds that are typically ignored by mainstream American culture. Members from this diverse group told their stories, and Chong cut up these tales and sculpted them into a cohesive piece performed by the storytellers themselves.
“I call it 'seated opera for the spoken word,'” he says. “It's choreographed storytelling that's a form of social activism, but it's also art in the formal sense: It encourages viewers to view the world in new ways.”
Since that first production, Chong has staged new versions of Undesirable Elements in different cities around the world—Tokyo, Berlin, Rotterdam, Chicago, Seattle—and this weekend he will launch a new show featuring five people from Albuquerque. The theme is otherness. “People think of difference as threatening,” Chong says, adding that although our society is extremely diverse, you wouldn't know it from the mainstream media, primarily because commercial TV, radio, films and print are created mostly by upper-class white people.
Chong is in town right now to stage his Albuquerque version of Undesirable Elements at VSA's North Fourth Art Center. Five Albuquerqueans are involved, including a Navajo man, a woman born in Switzerland, a blind person, a deaf person and a woman with cerebral palsy who requires a computer to communicate. Marjorie Neset, VSA's executive director, says the performance is a perfect fit for her organization. “This is what we're all about,” she says.
VSA is the local chapter of a national nonprofit organization dedicated to providing creative outlets to those with disabilities or limited access to the arts. Chong's performance is part of VSA's monthlong Out of the Ordinary Festival, which will also include a photography show of work by visually impaired artists, a multimedia dance piece by Cathy Weis and a screening of short films put together by John R. Killacky.
As far as Chong's show, this is highly inventive experimental theater. We've never had anything quite like it in New Mexico. Chong is really excited about the Albuquerque version, because of the individuals involved. “We're basically working with four entirely different kinds of communication,” he says. “The challenge is to get people to see it who normally wouldn't.”