An Unexpected invitation brought Elizabeth Wong to St. Louis and she immersed herself in the experience
Kimchee & Chitlins playwright and director Elizabeth Wong, whose former career was in television news, is a believer in the power of comedy. She chooses to use her humor to tackle serious subjects, and is influenced by writers like James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Huston and the films To Kill a Mockingbird and Rashomon. As an artist of color, she is also looking for topics that interest her, employing humor to both disarm and inform audiences. As she puts it, " I am interested in things that bring us closer to our own humanity, and also what keeps us from following our better angels . . . but I do this exploration usually through the comedic prism."
An invitation from Solid Lines Productions to direct her play as a visiting artist offered the opportunity for Wong to work directly with an ensemble and make a positive impact on the city and company. Wong purposefully showcases the talent, versatility, comic chops, and star quality of actors of color in her work, increasing notice and opportunities. Solid Lines Productions' commitment to producing works by and about people of color in a professional setting is part of what drew her to St. Louis.
"It's amazing to me that Solid Lines, founded by a white guy with cojones and vision, is trying to bring new stories and theatrical voices not often heard to St. Louis. What a gift to the city," Wong observes when asked what attracted her to this project. She was also impressed by the fact that such a young company (this is the company's third year) was committed to bringing in a visiting artist of color. "In this current climate, in which our own government is sending the message that the arts and culture don't matter, and in particular that storytelling and developing artists of color don't matter, Solid Lines is on the front lines," she explains. "Making art continues to be a strong form of resistance."
Kimchee & Chitlins tells how a young, Chinese-American TV reporter was able to land her dream anchor job. The play is a "before I was famous" story, focusing on the character's growth as a cub reporter reluctantly exploring racial tension between minorities in America. Wong got the idea while watching coverage of an incident between Blacks and Koreans in Los Angeles. She noticed that none of the reporters were speaking with the local Korean community and, as a boycott escalated, wondered what went wrong. Did the media contribute to the strife through its coverage and, more troubling, how bad could this get?
In developing the script, Wong took a long look at race and her profession and realized she was dealing with a lot of relevant issues, or as she says: "a lot of 'isms' . . . racism . . . sexism . . . stupid'ism . . . Oh wait, I just invented a new word!" She wondered whether contemporary newsgathering techniques and priorities distort issues and become part of the story. To Wong, this is a particularly important topic in an age of alternative news and false equivalencies that challenge long-held journalistic principles.
Shannon Nara, a member of the company's Executive Creative Council, is thrilled with the collaborative experience and Wong's residency. "I'm passionate about using theatre to reach audiences and work together with our community to help change the direction of social justice issues we currently face," she says. "Theatre is a powerful way to connect with people of all ages and our team has the drive to help facilitate positive change and dialogue. I am incredibly proud to work with and be part of this extraordinary team."
Wong hasn't been stuck in the theater her entire stay, however. She's happily explored a wide variety of our city's amenities and is pleasantly surprised by the vibrancy of St. Louis, in particular our arts, history, and food choices. When prompted, Wong quickly notes that Lulu's Local Eatery (on South Grand) has the "Best Vegan food, better than in Los Angeles. In fact," she adds, "I think St. Louis has a wide variety of good food -- you lack for nothing." She also appreciates the local craft beer scene and, naturally, she's planning to visit City Museum before she leaves.
Solid Lines Productions is inviting audience members and the public to a talk back with the playwright after Friday night's performance of Kimchee & Chitlins, in performance at the CS Huh Auditorium in the Center for Global Citizenship on the Saint Louis University campus February 3 & 4, 2017, and tickets are still available. You can find out more information about Ms. Wong's show, and the company's season on their Facebook page and website.