flower drum song, the musical
I’m always down for a live performance. Regardless of event type, seeing things live always adds a new dimension to appreciate, be it a baseball game, stand-up comedy routine or concert of any genre. Last week, I experienced a Broadway style musical, Flower Drum Song on an extended run at Diamond Head Theatre. These performers are working it, singing, dancing, acting… they have my full respect. Having a live, mini-orchestra there was also unexpected and fun.
This youtube clip of a 2006 performance looks like someone snuck it in the theater. Minus the thong(!) it is very much like what we saw at DHT. (The last minute or so appears to be some… thing… else….. perhaps was under the recording?)
The dailies of course loved the show.
They love everything that’s locally produced; it’s the CODB in Hawaii. (see comments) Me I’m not really a “musicals person” (and yea those are “scare quotes”). LoL. But I tried to put that aside since I was there for a class assignment to think about the performance in terms of the reading we had done the previous week in a book by Coco Fusco called English is Broken Here.
The task was to consider what Fusco would say about the Flower Drum Song performance at DHT. As concerned as she is with Latino/a issues, I do not think Fusco would speak too directly to the content of a supposedly reappropriated (re-reappropriated?) performance of Asian otherness in a United Statesian* style in the illegally occupied Kingdom of Hawaii. But that’s an admittedly presumptuous guess.
Flower Drum Song was first a book, then a musical, then a movie, then a revised musical–all about a Chinese immigrant experience in San Francisco. With regards to translation studies, this is a knot that one could build a career untangling. (Who is the author??) The cast (in Hawaii) is majority (local) Japanese with some Hawaiian plus (local) Chinese, and the audience (in Hawaii)–at least at our showing–majority Euros and Asians ~50+. Politics, race, sex and gender are all problematic in the musical. Seriously, the heroine’s main choice is Pake A or Pake B and the gay is really flamboyant and comedic, you know, a stereotype. It’s all fun and games until you think about it too hard.
In the essay “Passionate Irreverence: The Cultural Politics of Identity,” Fusco makes the obvious, yet for me epiphanic observation that “[p]hysical and cultural dislocation characterizes the daily lives of many, if not most, of the people of the world” (26). This personal, profound observation enables a gentle yet radical consideration of any presentation.
Fusco points out that “only an infinitely small sector of society actually chooses freely where they are, who they are, and how they live.” It seems undeniable that the agents behind this production of the Flower Drum Song are among them. As corny as all musicals are, I think it’s important that this one is an actual reclaimation (no??) of a “racially inflected, voyeristic” (28) production into generally Asian, if not Chinese-American hands.
Honolulu is not New York, and thus more free from the critically imposed Broadway-musical hegemony that gave rise to John Kuo Wei Tchen’s defense of the revised production. Yet our version seems to have stayed remarkably close to the 2002 version. I do not know enough about musical theater to say if this is the norm for this culture industry. Community theater has enough challenges without reimagining every number. Isn’t it safe to say that in this case Asian-Americans “exert a degree of control over their representation” (70)?
With whom does the responsibility lie for sticking women into Chinese take-out boxes and putting flashing lights on their breasts? The costumer? the choreographer? the director? the dancer who takes the job or the audience who laughs and admires the female forms, ready to-go? “That’s a really, you know, sick, twisted moment. And it’s… I really like it,” said David Henry Hwang on PBS. I liked it too, and I’m not even a big fan of Chinese food.
The Chinese Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii and the 59th Annual Narcissus Festival sponsored one showing of Flower Drum Song at DHT, is that not an endorsement? Autumn Ogawa, who played heroine Mei-Li in the Honolulu production, said in a Honolulu Advertiser profile that “the newer version [of Flower Drum Song] speaks volumes about how different and powerful [Mei-Li] is.” True or false? A picture bride, as her character was in the previous incarnation of the performance, embodies no less pathos than the political refugee Mei-Li is today. Perhaps in the next version she’ll be Tibetan.
My favorite character was Madame Liang, the talent agent, who barges into the theater and takes over the management. She’s bossy, feminine, thrice-married, independent and focused on the bottom line. As an agent, she’s kinda terrible, letting Linda Low go off to LA without getting her percentage. But she works the system of cultural commodification and as a result makes herself and those around her wealthy. She has no qualms about cashing in on the performative aspects of Chinese(-American) culture, which she pimps vis-a-vis marketing and spectacle that titillates and panders to US-ian ideas of Chinese-ness; safe to say she is smiling as she accepts the money of her “white devil” patrons.
* Fusco IMO would not allow a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical the encompassing and happily misused adjective “American.”
PS I’m a little embarrassed by this disjointed, essay-ish post, please, e-posterity, dont judge me too harshly. I didn’t really have time to edit myself. My bad on anything that is messed up.