1989 on Stage

The stage prior to the performance. I love how well they made the set look like a beat-up school gymnasium from the 1980s. This photo is mine. Most of the rest of the photos on this post are courtesy of Portland Center Stage.
Tommy Bo as Manford Lum in Lauren Yee’s The Great Leap. {Photo courtesy Portland Center Stage (PCS)}

I attended two plays at Portland Center Stage/ The Armory last week and was pleasantly surprised to discover their specific link: the year 1989. The productions were occurring simultaneously; The Great Leap on the main stage at ground level, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch in the Ellen Bye studio below ground level.

I wanted to see The Great Leap because it’s by playwright Lauren Yee. I had tickets to see Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band in 2020, and, naturally, it was canceled and I was disappointed. The Great Leap was a second chance to see her work. I knew it would be about a Chinese American kid playing basketball in San Francisco in the 80s. That’s really all I knew going in.

The scoreboard shows the year for this scene: 1976. Actors L to R: Darius Pierce, Sami Ma, Tommy Bo, and Kenneth Lee. {Photo courtesy PCS}
The celebrity American coach traveled to Beijing in the 70s to give basketball tips. A lowly assistant, here taking notes, is subsequently asked to coach, and the two meet again in 1989. {Photo courtesy PCS}
Throughout the play, the character of Wen Chang turns to the audience to add understanding to the scene by describing his inner thoughts. He points out how the American and Chinese cultures inform different meanings to actions and phrases. Chang explains how challenging it is to first understand what is happening, and then to interpret the American for the government officials. {Photo courtesy PCS}

Pedro was able to come to the show with me. We had great seats and were up close and personal for the excellent performances of four actors who managed to pull off the entire story without it ever feeling like something was left out. Tommy Bo was the aggressive, overly-confident, basketball teen prodigy, Manford, from Chinatown in San Fran. Darius Pierce was the stubborn San Francisco University basketball coach who was persistently a jerk to cover up his insecurities. Kenneth Lee was the Beijing University basketball coach with a fascinating, faceted inner life hidden by his excellent efforts to succeed within the Chinese Communist Party. Sami Ma played a couple of characters, but most importantly the “cousin” of the basketball player – a caring family friend who acts like his big sister. When his mother died, leaving him an orphan, her family looked after Manford.

It is a great story, and funny, and sweet. Also hopeful, but sad. In a nutshell, Chinese-American relations are frayed in the late 1980s, and a friendship basketball game is organized as a means of international diplomacy. It’s scheduled to take place in 1989 in Beijing. It is very well written and makes me sad all over again that I missed Cambodian Rock Band. The characters are believable and nuanced. Yee is able to spin clear and valid back stories for the three main characters, which explain why they behave the way they do. It’s three people who live ordinary lives, and love, and care, and suffer loss and setbacks, and continue to hold a fire inside. Well, clearly Manford is on fire from the first scene, and it burns white hot while he somehow gets the SF coach to let him on the team using ballsy tactics that raised my eyebrows and earned the coach’s respect. It’s absolutely convincing that his motivation is merely that he’s a hotheaded teenager who thinks he’s a deserving basketball powerhouse. But it’s astounding when you realize the real reason why he simply HAD to get to China after his mom died. Manford thinks the coach of Beijing’s team is his father. He has put it all together finally, even though his mother never told him, and the game is his only way to confront the man face to face and demand the truth.

Without being preachy, the play reveals that some major problems personally, socially, and politically can occur when we make assumptions about a group of people different than us. In this case, about people with Asian heritage.

The two coaches have some history. They met each other in the 1970s, and when we see those scenes, the scoreboard is used to display the year. Each time a new year popped up, I would think to myself, “Where was I at that time?” It was fun to know I was alive during these fictional events, culminating in the 1989 game. Mention of the Beijing student protests came up multiple times. When the SF team went to Beijing, the two coaches had apartments overlooking Tiananmen Square. With all these clues, I still never put it together. I just don’t know where my head was. During the game, the protests outside grew so loud the people inside the gym stopped and looked around. I still didn’t make the connection to one of the biggest world events during my lifetime that had a big impact on me.

At the end, the Beijing coach thinks about the lost love of his life that he chose not to follow to America, his talented son he never acknowledged, his successful and empty life, and realizes he is tired of playing the role of well-behaved citizen. Still in his apartment, he takes off his jacket and grabs a couple bags to head out into the square and see if he can add his voice to the protestors. “The Chinese government said I was a nobody,” he said, “And that is true.”

The final scene of The Great Leap. {Photo courtesy PCS}

A week later I went to see Hedwig and the Angry Inch with a girlfriend. The musical first opened in 1998 off Broadway and has been playing somewhere or another ever since. The story is from John Cameron Mitchell and the music is by Stephen Trask, inspired by the rock styles of David Bowie, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, as well as John Lennon. Again, I had no idea what the story was about, other than I was pretty sure the main character was transgender and the name of the show comes from a botched male to female surgical operation. I didn’t even know it was a musical. Ha!

Yitzhak, the husband/assistant of Hedwig, gives announcements prior to the show. The band called The Angry Inch plays inside the Chili’s. The front row of audience members sat on the edge of the stage. {my photo}
Yitzhak, played by Ithaca Tell, told us to take our phones out and wave them in the air. “You can take photos of me if you want. I’ll give you five seconds. Five….four….” Then he aggressively told us that we had better turn all those phones off completely, and immediately. {my photo}

The setting was in the decayed remains of a mall food court, with a broken Chili’s sign in the background, next to an escalator swathed in yellow DO NOT CROSS tape. Our heroine, Hedwig, appears on the escalator regardless, bedecked in 1980s distressed denim that makes up a dazzling outfit, which is slowly removed, bit by bit, during the performance. Their larger-than-life character accessorizes in sequins, chains, rhinestones, glitter, mesh, and even beer cans rolled up into her wig. Hedwig – who isn’t really female or male – tells the troubled story of their life, and though they are feeling angry and empty when it begins, the telling of the story helps them find a resolution and a love for themself as well as for their husband Yitzhak, who is by their side but picked on and neglected for much of the story.

Pedro pointed out that we had been impressed that only four actors pulled off the first play, but this one was accomplished by one dynamic personality and their trusty partner Yitzhak. With a talented back-up band.

Hedwig performs for the audience in the setting of an abandoned mall. {Photo courtesy PCS}

When Hedwig was a twenty-something young man living with his single mother in East Berlin in the 1980s, he met and fell in love with an American GI. The GI found a way to help Hedwig escape the walled Communist city: by marrying him. To convince the authorities the marriage was legitimate, Hedwig had to undergo an operation and present as female. The secret procedure mutilates poor Hedwig, leaving a dysfunctional one-inch mound that Hedwig names “the angry inch.” Hedwig believes, as does their mother, that it will be worth it to go and have a new chance at life in America.

The GI takes Hedwig to a small town in Kansas where they have to keep their truths secret. On their one-year anniversary, November 9, 1989, the GI leaves Hedwig for someone else. Then Hedwig sees on the news that the wall came down. All of it was for nothing.

Hedwig, played by Delphon “DJ” Curtis, Jr., alternately sings and tells their story. Check out the Barbie heads in that wig! {Photo courtesy PCS}

Curtis, the actor playing Hedwig, did not miss a beat or lose power of character, when the zipper on the front of their bustier busted. It was held together by a thin strip of cloth and elbows pressing in, while Hedwig danced and sang and shimmied and eventually made it over to Yitzhak, who had found a string and deftly laced Hedwig back together while the show continued. I couldn’t tell if that was an intended part of the show or not until I saw these press photos in this post, showing the zipper stays intact.

Hedwig tells of the next love, a musician who rose to fame on the collaboration between them, but now does not credit Hedwig in the songs that have made his career, while Hedwig struggles with no real career success. The failure of this relationship shook Hedwig up worse than the first, but the show went on. Hedwig conveys the most profound sentiment of the story, which is that “Each time you want a change, you must first give up a part of yourself.”

Hedwig belts it out. {Photo courtesy of PCS}

Images are projected onto the walls, the Chili’s, and the escalator, to help illustrate some of the things Hedwig talks and sings about. It’s all kind of 70s psychedelic imagery which was interesting but not particularly appealing to me. Maybe my hearing was off, acoustics were challenging, or something, but sometimes I could not understand Hedwig’s words, and when recorded voices were played I couldn’t understand a single word of those. It’s apparently a comedy, but I missed half the jokes, and I think other audience members must have been having a hard time too, because sometimes Hedwig or Yitzhak had to help us understand our cues to laugh or applaud, or the drummer would do a ba-da-bump! that would clue us in. For me personally, I have a very difficult time getting a storyline from songs, too. So the parts of Hedwig’s story that came from the songs were mostly lost because I find it hard to make sense of lyrics. I did find that all of the tunes were catchy or compelling and appealing.

Thus, when the imagery showed me that Hedwig had found self-love and felt whole again, sadly I didn’t know why. I was glad for it, though. And the relationship with Yitzhak improved dramatically, which also made things better. In the very final scene, Hedwig presents as a man, having stripped all his costume off except black shorts and shoes, and has even washed off the makeup. This vulnerability makes the character very appealing and approachable, and helped me see myself in that process of transformation, and the painful path that led to it.

Tickets to the shows

The year 1989 was an astonishing year, wasn’t it? For me, especially so, since I was 19 and filled with the uproar of emotions of that age. Everything was huge, and dramatic, and shocking, or brilliant, or devastating. At 19, I was assaulted by my Air Force instructor then immediately repressed it for twenty years. I was sent to my first Air Force base to try to begin my life as an adult and try to make my first career work in meteorology. I bought my first car. I fell in love, got pregnant, then – when the father moved to Italy – ended the pregnancy by walking through a line of protestors holding signs with grotesque photos and shouting that I was sinning against Jesus. A woman in a bullet-proof vest met me and walked behind me in protection until I got inside the clinic. I gave up a part of myself.

It was a fracas of a year for me: 1989. I heard about the Berlin Wall coming down and I heard about Chinese police shooting Bejing student protestors on Tiananmen Square, and was riveted by the news. These two plays of upheaval were absolutely appropriate for my memory of that year.

19 thoughts on “1989 on Stage

  1. Yes, 1989 was an eventful year for me, too. In February my father died, so I flew to Chicago and spent several weeks getting things sorted out, then rented a car (for the last time in my life) and drove to Wisconsin to see my uncle Bill, who was nearly 90. Then spent a week in San Antonio at the TESOL convention before returning to Frankfurt. (Haven’t been back to the US since then.)
    And in November the walls between East and West Germany opened up. https://operasandcycling.com/rostock-1989/

    1. It was a momentous year for you as well. The idea of a single year when so much happened makes me think about today and wonder if there will be a year when people look back and say SO much happened. 2020 may very well be that year for me, as the pandemic was merely one thing in a series of life changes. The idea that you drove a car for the last time, saw the US for the last time, and your uncle for the last time….so many lasts. All in the shadow of the death of your father. And then Tiananmen and Berlin also.

    1. Thank you! They were both outstanding productions and I’m glad you were able to enjoy my descriptions. Yes, like so many other people, as I age I find more and more occasions when my hearing isn’t working well. It’s sad when it means I can’t understand the words in a performance.

  2. Quite some stories, of both plays and of you. He was an instructor! šŸ˜® It makes me even angrier.

    Do you know the blogger Cee? Her partner Chris was also a meteorologist for the Army. I know, it’s a huge army, but maybe you know her.

    1. Yes, my instructor who outranked me, in a place where you are not supposed to disobey those who outrank you. And me, just a baby, left my father’s house only 4 months earlier. I was not at all prepared to be the strong woman I needed to be. I have heard of Cee for years, of course. Everyone knows Cee’s challenges. But no, I have never visited her website. I wonder where Chris worked? It would depend on which branch he served in (Navy, Marines, or Air Force), but if he was also in the Air Force, we very easily could have met, since meteorology is a small department. If he’s our age, we could have met in school, since we all went to school together at the same place!

  3. Interesting and thought -provoking stories in those plays! Tianenmen square and the coming down of the Berlin Wall were momentous and life changing in negative and positive ways for many people. Sounds like it was also life changing for you and I am sorry you had to be exposed to protesters at a time when you were so vulnerable. I know what that is like too and thankfully, things are better for women here in Australia. I hope things are better where you are too.

    1. Such a kind response, Amanda. Things did get better after 1989, and there was a long period of time where women’s access to healthcare and family planning was getting stronger and more widespread all the time. Unfortunately, with the divisions in this country that have been much amplified since 2016, one of the places that conservative people choose to exert their power is over women’s health. In some states in the U.S., access to family planning has recently been eliminated and is now almost completely nonexistent. In 2022, clinics that will protect a young, scared woman like I was in 1989, are disappearing fast. It’s devastating. We are at this moment in fear that the federal law that allows women to have an abortion is about to be rescinded. I am very glad that things are still in place for vulnerable women in Australia. I know that there are growing divisions there right now, too, and I hope that in the anger and frustration, they leave women’s health alone.

      Yes, the plays were exactly as you say, and I’ve come to rely on this particular playhouse for choosing well. A play really can gut me emotionally unlike a movie, and I appreciate having a place where I can feel so deeply. Each time I re-read this piece and see the image of the Beijing coach, holding the bags, I can’t stop myself from crying. I will never, ever forget that scene from the television.

      1. The fact that women’s family planning and abortion options are disappearing makes it all the more important for women to stand in solidarity, across the world to spread awareness of the erosion of choices. If I can be of help in this regard, please let me know.

    1. Thank you so much! You are right: they were both fascinating plays. I’m especially pleased that I had very little idea of what they were going to be about, when I went to see them. That let me really get involved, and let the actors take me on a journey with them.

  4. I wish I had seen the first one and glad I missed the second since my hearing issues would have made it so frustrating to watch. Thank you for enlightening me on both of them. I rarely get to see those even though I am fascinated. H and I both were involved in the drama department in our high school years. I loved plays but in 1989, I was 41 and drowning in my own version of hell. So seriously disconnected from the world that a world war probably would have gone unnoticed. We will continue to struggle with abuse of women as long as conservative men stay in power anywhere. I would probably look up for a way to change that. I can get vehement about anyone that thinks they have the right to tell someone else what to do with their body. It’s time to stop it permanently. I’ll be popping by your posts this week while I am house sitting. Finally a breath of air.

    1. So nice to hear your voice, Marlene. I’ve been swamped this week, ever since the big storm, and I’m just up for a breath of air right now. Glad to find you here. I’ll try to look at others’ posts this week too. I took a part-time job at the college, which is unexpected! My Spanish professor asked me to tutor Spanish! I know, it’s ridiculous. I can’t speak Spanish. But she said she recommended me because I am a good student, which I can agree with. Anyway, I took the job because I think that helping others with THEIR Spanish will help me learn it better. Anyway, it’s two days a week, and with all the other things I’m always doing, that sucks up a lot of time.

      It sounds like 1989 was a momentous year for you, too. I wonder what was up with the planetary alignment, or whatever was going on that year.

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