AMERICAN THEATRE | An America of Coloration and Complication in ‘The Nice Jheri Curl Debate’ and ‘Mushroom’

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Ryun Yu and Julanne Chidi Hill in “The Nice Jheri Curl Debate” at East West Gamers (Picture by Steven Lam); Laura Crotte, Ahsan Ali, and Kenia Munguia in “Mushroom” at Individuals’s Mild (Picture by Mark Garvin)

It was at a day session of the TCG Convention in Miami in 2019 titled “Main the Cultural Change: Past Illustration” that I noticed Snehal Desai, creative director of L.A.’s East West Gamers, gesture to his co-panelists—all of them, like him, theatre leaders of shade from varied racial and cultural backgrounds—and ask merely, “The place’s the play that appears like this?”

His level was that he, a South Asian man, counts amongst his pals and colleagues people who’re Black, East Asian, Indigenous, Latine, and blended race, however that he’s seldom seen this type of rainbow matter-of-factly represented onstage—together with at his personal theatre, which tends to current each authentic performs by Asian People rooted in and about their very own cultures and revivals of musicals with all-Asian casts.

In context, I believe Desai had in thoughts a sort of multi-culti Buddies, or a minimum of a play wherein the cultural variations among the many characters wouldn’t be the primary driver of the drama. However his level stands even in the event you contemplate stage exhibits about intercultural relationships extra broadly, whether or not conflictual or collegial. Excluding performs about fraught dealings between Black and white people, from Dutchman to Move Over, the literature of performs about completely different individuals of shade is conspicuously skinny.

Inda Craig-Galván. (Picture by Julian Juaquin)

Therefore East West Gamers’ new season, which can discover the connection between African American and Asian American communities, and which kicks off this week with Inda Craig-Galván’s The Nice Jheri Curl Debate (now although Oct. 9). A comic book drama set in 1979, it’s a few Black girl, Veralynn, who takes a job in a South Facet Chicago magnificence provide store run by a Korean man, Mr. Kim, with no information of Black magnificence merchandise and even much less curiosity in his prospects’ lives. As is the best way of such performs, every character is modified by the opposite, in what director Scarlett Kim referred to as “not a romantic love story, however a sort of love story of two individuals with the ability to see one another for who they’re, past the prescribed concepts of who they’re purported to be or what they’re supposed to consider one another, which is all primarily based on white assumptions concerning the guidelines these identities are purported to play throughout the dominant tradition.”

Playwright Craig-Galván, who was invited by Desai to hitch EWP’s author’s group, primarily based the play on her mom’s personal expertise.

“She was a hairdresser, a beautician, who, as a result of the chemical substances had been beginning to get to her, sought a job at a newly opened magnificence provide retailer in our all-Black neighborhood,” Craig-Galván recalled. “The shop was owned by a Korean immigrant, as most of them had been. So the concept we see within the play, the place this man tells her, ‘I can’t pronounce your title, so I’m going to name you Julie’—that basically occurred. And for the remainder of her life, all people in our household, all of her pals, referred to as her Julie. I at all times questioned what would make a lady permit a person who was simply her boss to primarily change her title.”

Ryun Yu and Mildred Marie Langford in “The Nice Jheri Curl Debate” at East West Gamers. (Picture by Steven Lam)

That’s not the one supply of battle among the many two leads in The Nice Jheri Curl Debate. Along with their disconnect over the very magnificence merchandise they promote, which Veralynn is aware of intimately however Mr. Kim doesn’t, there’s a deep-rooted distrust between these two communities which has sometimes flared into riots and violence. At one level Mr. Kim alludes to a gathering of fellow Korean store house owners wherein they share “suggestions” on how one can deal with their Black prospects, together with what sort of gun to have available. And at one other level he instructs Veralynn in what looks like a mystifying strategy to customer support:

Be imply. Not at all times, not like my brother. Not like Younger-suk. However only for every week right here and every week there. Prospects get postpone, they keep away. Not at all times. However some. However then… they miss us. Walgreen’s doesn’t have what we’ve. And when the purchasers come again for what we’ve, then you definately act good. Not funny-acting. They arrive again and are available again and are available again. Enterprise picks up. In a couple of months, you act imply once more. Enterprise ranges out. Enterprise stays stage. Doesn’t develop too fast. Don’t need that.

What Craig-Galván realized by doing analysis and speaking to Korean American acquaintances and pals is that the rationale for this seemingly unusual perspective, which fed stereotypes of brusque Koreans, was grounded in financial concern. Crediting the insights of a paper by Jackson State College’s Robert Mark Silverman, Craig-Galván stated, “Their shops had been being watched, and in the event that they had been making an excessive amount of cash and searching too profitable, the hire would get raised. So they might deliberately attempt to drive away site visitors by each now and again treating prospects poorly. A number of of the individuals who had been interviewed stated that was their tactic for slowing enterprise down in order that their rents wouldn’t get raised.”

One other supply of battle for Veralynn is the very hair product alluded to within the title—an notorious wet-curl everlasting wave for Black people’ hair patented by a white entrepreneur, Robert William Redding, who sooner or later took on the inexplicable nickname Jheri, and who’s embodied within the play by an enormous in-store poster that involves grinning life. Veralynn is aware of firsthand the injury that Jheri Curl chemical substances can wreak on hair, and he or she additionally is aware of a number of do-it-yourself workarounds which might be safer however aren’t accessible on her retailer’s cabinets. She finally finds expression in Mr. Kim’s store by making wigs in varied kinds—although not the Jheri Curl.

Shelia Dorn, who designed Veralynn’s wigs for the present in addition to for a Black couple from one other animated in-store poster, shares the lead character’s opinion. “I’m not a fan of the Jheri Curl,” stated Dorn, who designs wigs primarily for theatre but additionally for movie and TV. Nonetheless, some observers have forecast a comeback for the look as soon as favored by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie. “Some individuals nonetheless have slightly curl, but it surely’s not as juicy,” stated Dorn.

On the intersection of those two strands—considerations about Black magnificence requirements, and the battle amongst Black people and Korean People—is a scarcity of welcome. Mr. Kim feels unwelcome, not solely as an Asian immigrant in white-dominated America, but additionally in a predominantly Black neighborhood the place he feels mistrusted and resented. Veralynn can be made to really feel doubly unwelcome, each by the mistrustful vibe in Mr. Kim’s retailer and by the very merchandise on his cabinets, which promote her a imaginative and prescient of how she ought to look that isn’t her personal. That these two characters discover and clear some floor collectively, regardless of the assumptions imposed on them from outdoors, is the sort of miracle you’ll be able to’t put in a bottle.

The solid of “Mushroom” at Individuals’s Mild. (Picture by Mark Garvin)

In the meantime, on the opposite aspect of the nation, at Individuals’s Mild in Malvern, Pa., contemporary floor is being harvested with Mushroom, an bold new play by Eisa Davis (taking part in now by way of Oct. 16) concerning the Mexican immigrants, a lot of them undocumented, who work choosing 50 % of the nation’s mushrooms in Kennett Sq., in West Chester, Pa., and whose neighborhood was raided by ICE in 2017. Among the many eight characters in Davis’s play, primarily based on years of interviews she carried out with mushroom pickers and others within the area, is an immigrant with a pointedly completely different standing: a South Asian tech employee named Natarajan, for whom one mushroom employee, Ignacio, is performing some renovations on the aspect, and who has begun an informal relationship with Edit, a Latina nurse whose mom, Lety, has labored within the mushroom “doubles” (a time period for the homes wherein the mushrooms are grown) because the two arrived from Mexico when Edit was 5.

That solely hints at among the complexity of Davis’s braided, bilingual narrative, wherein conflicts amongst employees develop into entangled with broader labor and immigration considerations and a restorative justice course of initiated by a mushroom employee and part-time activist, Rain, results in uncomfortable revelations. Although there’s additionally a white proprietor depicted within the play, like The Nice Jheri Curl Debate, Mushroom is a play about non-white people pressed collectively by the impersonal logic of white American capitalism, and searching for, out of necessity if not pure affinity, some sort of solidarity.

Eisa Davis. (Picture by Dennis Johnston)

Mushroom grew out of Individuals’s Mild’s New Play Frontiers commissions, designed to create, because the official language has it, “new performs that discover our American id impressed by tales and considerations in our area.” Davis has been engaged on this fee since 2013, and since then the play has swelled to one thing “sort of epic, sort of operatic.” The topic has dictated the shape, she stated: “It seems like an actual microcosm of bigger points round interdependence, and who we’re because the household of humankind.” It’s additionally a play wherein, as Davis put it, “I’m writing it but it surely’s additionally writing me.” 

Staged by director David Mendizábal, a lot of Mushroom invokes a sort of story circle, with an intermittent recreation of musical chairs meant to evoke “the metaphor of shortage we’re taught that isn’t essentially true,” Davis stated. Certainly, for all its drama—and this play has some large, jaw-drop moments—that is additionally a educating play.

“We have to be taught extra about the place it’s that our meals comes from, simply as we have to simply perceive extra of the methods that maintain us alive,” stated Davis, who could also be finest identified to many of us for her appearing work, most lately in Mare of Easttown. The local weather disaster is one facet of that, however so is the labor dimension. It was a wakeup name for Davis, as an illustration, when she realized agricultural employees, documented or in any other case, are usually not lined underneath the U.S. Truthful Labor Requirements Act. “As an Fairness actor, there are such a lot of issues I simply take with no consideration, like having a primary assist equipment within the room, or having breaks, having extra time pay. You’re not entitled to any of that in the event you do agricultural work.” So Mushroom is about “the place our meals comes from, but additionally the place the individuals come from who’re choosing this meals, and the way that that ingredient of the ecosystem needs to be revered and understood, versus made right into a handy scapegoat and vessel for all the rage and discontent that lots of people who name themselves People have.”

This may increasingly all appear a good distance from the multi-culti Buddies picture evoked by Snehal Desai’s remark. However among the many hopes I’ve for U.S. theatres is that if they start to stage the world because it really is—i.e., majority non-white, and in all its colours and problems—we would have an opportunity of shifting by way of these conflicts to a spot of gathering and understanding. A spot just like the theatre, actually.

Rob Weinert-Kendt (he/him) is the editor-in-chief of American Theatre. rwkendt@tcg.org

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