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Undesirable Elements casts out fear

click to enlarge Ping Chong likens his Undesirable Elements to a - seated - opera for the spoken word.
  • Ping Chong likens his Undesirable Elements to a seated opera for the spoken word.

Sometimes the world seems bent on getting rid of its "undesirable elements," anyone or anything that diverges from the mainstream flavor or rhythm of the day.

New York playwright, choreographer, videographer and renowned theater innovator Ping Chong argues that's exactly what the world doesn't need.

"I think there's an element in this country that finds differences frightening," says Chong from his home in New York. "The paradox, of course, is that this country is made up of all different elements and cultures from across the world."

This paradox, as well as formative experiences working with people from other countries, led Chong, a Chinese-American, to seek out stories of ethnic beginnings and life experiences from those on the margins of mainstream. The result is Chong's biggest theatrical success, Undesirable Elements, a show that has seen 20 different productions in 29 different U.S. communities and in Berlin, Japan and Holland.

This week, Undesirable Elements stops at the Colorado Festival of World Theatre, staged in the Woodland Park Tent built specially for the festival.

"When I started asking people questions about their family histories -- why they came to America -- I was concerned at how intolerance was on the rise in this country, that there was a growing inability to tolerate differences," says Chong.

He found people whose life experiences were inextricably linked to their ethnicity: an American of Lebanese descent, an aristocratic woman from Nicaragua, a Choctaw Indian, a young German woman studying in the U.S., a woman from Ukraine who lived through the second world war and came to the United States as a refugee. He encountered a woman with a black mother and a Jewish father who was abandoned at birth and adopted at four months by a Mennonite family that raised her in Indiana.

"The show became a mosaic of people's lives," says Chong, "a history of the country they came from, why they left and their struggles in the U.S., being accepted as different. When I interviewed people, I realized that each human being is a repository of history, that we are all living history, because as we live, the world we know disappears."

The show is presented with six or seven storytellers on stage, seated in a semi-circle. Though that sounds relatively nondramatic, the spectacle, says Chong, comes from the human drama of the storytellers' lives. Music might be mixed in, sung in the teller's native language, and occasionally dance or poetry is added.

"I also call this a seated opera for the spoken word," says Chong. "It's very orchestrated. It's the idea that language is music. Even as one person is telling a story, the voice of someone else -- an aunt, an uncle -- might be spoken by another cast member. Sometimes there's choral speaking."

Chong, who was born and raised in the U.S. by Chinese parents, appears in the show, adding his own experience as an "undesirable."

"It's important that this shouldn't be seen as a show only about immigrants," he says. "It's about connecting. It's very much a project about empathy, about how we learn to empathize with differences."

-- Kathryn Eastburn

capsule

Undesirable Elements

Woodland Park Tent, 120 S. West St., Woodland Park

Wednesday, July 27, Theatre Talk at 7 p.m., show at 8 p.m.; Thursday, July 28 and Friday, July 29, 8 p.m.

Tickets and map: Visit cfwt.org or call 576-2626.

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