Sell ​​more than the sizzle

“In many ways, being Asian American has a lot in common with SPAM…

We are marginalized, misunderstood, born in America but interrogated by white Americans and shaped by war.”

Jamie Sunwoo (Photo: Toby Tenenbaum)

I never thought much about SPAM when I was a kid. I was raised on school lunches of Bologna Oscar Mayer mustard sandwiches on Wonder Bread Classic White. But when I was 20 years old, on my first visit to Hawaii, I was surprised and intrigued to find that in this state of predominantly Asian-Pacific and native Hawaiian culture, SPAM, which I viewed primarily as a punchline Monty Python was on almost every restaurant menu and considered an important part of local cuisine.

The unlikely connection between The Hormel Foods Corporation’s revolutionary canned pork shoulder and par-cooked ham blend (needs no refrigeration!) and the countries and islands sharing the shores of the South Pacific is fully explained in the film. wonderfully surreal, comedic and comical by Korean-American Jamie Sunwoo. touching play, Specially Processed American Me, running until Feb. 19 at Dixon Place (tickets $25, seniors/students $20).

Co-directed by singer/songwriter and Karim Muasher for Ping Chong and Company and Free Rein Projects, Sunwoo uses a blend of oral history, video, shadow play and period-style pop harmonies to tell the story of how SPAM, shipped to American troops such as during World War II and the Korean conflict, became a precious commodity in occupied lands when fresh meat was scarce.

A quartet of Hormel Girls (Vanessa Rappa, Juella Baltonado, Monica Goff and musical director Adrianna Mateo) push the product by wearing military attire and googly-eyed nose masks making them look like attractive cartoon pigs as they sing energetic melodies with acronyms. lyrics like:

Soldier, pack a meaty

Snack, perfect and already done.

Show people American power.

Share products made in the USA.

But unlike soldiers, who could simply fry the meat product or eat it straight from the can, locals used SPAM as a starting point for their own culinary flourishes.

Sunwoo’s family history is mixed with the fascinating world history lesson as she balances the heartwarming nostalgia of her mother and grandmother’s SPAM meals with the bloodshed and colonization that the American product represents and the taunts she receives as a teenager from white schoolmates who view SPAM as the raw garbage of the poor.

Before the advent of the Beautiful Mosaic concept, Americans saw themselves as part of a Melting Pot, a mixture of different cultures that would somehow combine to mass-produce a homogenized society, much like the homogenized product invented by Hormel. In Specially Processed American Me, Jamie Sunwoo reminds us that the beauty of American diversity lies in tasting many different flavors.

It’s been nearly thirty years since I first saw the all-rounder Phylicia Rashad on stage, seduce Brian Stokes Mitchell as they replaced Tonya Pinkins and Gregory Hines in Jelly’s Last Jam. Since then, in more than a dozen productions, I’ve seen her play Shakespearean queens (in Cymbeline and A Midsummer Night’s Dream), family matriarchs written by Tennessee Williams (Cat On A Hot Tin Roof) and Tracy Letts ( August: Osage County), an age-old symbol of racial oppression in August Wilson’s Gem Of The Ocean and a particularly unforgettable turn as the main character in The lyrical musical drama Bernarda Alba by Michael John LaChiusa.

But I’ve never seen her give a performance like the one she gives now as a director. Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s moving production of Dominique Morisseau’s excellent contemporary industry drama, Skeleton Crew. Playing the role of an aging auto worker displaying a tough facade while struggling through her final year before she can earn a dignified retirement, there is a painful weariness in her voice and physique, even when the character demands to be treated with dignity.

But I had to laugh at the curtain call when, now out of character, she recognized the applause of the audience with her familiar royal bearing and beaming Broadway star face. A gem of the scene, indeed.

I’ve never been to a jazz funeral in New Orleans…

but they seem so much fun that it’s a shame the dearly departed is never around to enjoy the festivities. But downtown staple Taylor Mac puts the guest of honor right in the middle at the HERE Arts Center, with the book and lyrics to The Hang, a musical event set after Socrates’ death sentence. for corrupting the minds of young Athenians (as if) and what happens could be seen as a fever dream occurring before, after or while taking the hemlock.

Sunday Morning Michael Dale: Selling more than the sizzle
Kat Edmonson, Taylor Mac and El Beh
(Photo: Maria Baranova)

Director Niegel Smith’s wraparound production has Taylor Mac playing Socrates as some sort of psychedelic, color-blasted guru, like almost everyone/everything else on stage, by designer Machine Dazzle. The great philosopher asks his grieving followers to dwell on the meaning of virtue, and they respond with cheerful renditions of selections from composer Matt Ray’s dashing jazz/blues score, played by a warm ensemble of charismatic soloists.

Anachronisms abound (Spoilers: Socrates never attended a jazz funeral and Plato never wore a typewriter around his neck) but anyone looking for functional drama in this one better relax and let his mind get corrupted.

They sing Happy Birthday…

Two days ago it would have been Jonathan Larson’s 62/22 birthday and I was thinking about how his narrating characters in both Rent and tick, tick…BOOM!, while immersed in the style of lives of poor artists, has a way of something more lucrative if he I’ll accept it. When I was trying to be an actor in my twenties and thirties, I did a lot of corporate acting work and was often asked if I was interested in a permanent position, something I always turned down until later. until I get an offer from a non-profit organization. who didn’t expect me to work beyond traditional hours, allowing me to flex my creative muscles on evenings and weekends. But when the new leaders expected me to make a full-time career out of it, I found myself unemployed because I didn’t want to give up doing free, unpaid theater in community gardens with my friends. So I guess that’s my emotional connection to Jonathan Larson’s musicals. Hey, what a way to spend your evenings and weekends.

Curtain line…

“Tennessee Williams may be a great playwright, but it’s a terrible place to keep a cat.” – Gracie Allen

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