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.
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.”
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!
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.