Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Caucasian-Aggressive Pandas and Other Mulatto Tales first was staged at Bryant Lake Bowl in 2015, and resurfaced at the 2016 Minnesota Fringe Festival. For Washington, who plays himself in the seventy minute long show, it is an extremely personal piece, in which he shares his own experience as a person who is of mixed race, both black and white, yet not fully a part of either group, in a society that likes its people in discrete social categories. He is a unique being, which is all that should matter, but his life's journey has proven otherwise. The show is a series of separate scenes, tied together by a narrator who is, ostensibly, dispassionately reading aloud these stories from a large bound book.
Some of the scenes are fanciful, like the one in which the titular pandas are out to capture and eat Caucasians because in their experience, being prodded, poked, tested and tortured in the name of increased mating, it was always Caucasians under the lab coats. They catch Washington and demand to know whether he is black or white. Understanding that if black he will be set free, if white he will be served for dinner, Washington claims to be blackbut they are not so sure, and put him through a barrage of humiliating tests to prove his blackness.
Other scenes are straight out of Washington's life, such as the first time, as a child, the N word was used to hurt him, the standardized test on which he faced having to choose to identify himself as black or white, there being no box for "mixed race" or "other." Or the parody of Mariah Carey's interview on Oprah, where she revealed the hardships and shame of being biracial. In between some of these scenes are asides that address such issues as the impact of Bill Cosby's fall from grace and the fact that the play first came to light when a person of mixed race was our president, while now a very different person occupies the White House.
Washington's text is witty and literate, with joke lines imbedded throughout, but he never fails to make his sharp-edged point. As a performer, he comes across as charming and utterly guileless, an innocent cast off in Alice's wonderland where reason is undermined by prejudice and ignorance. Because he radiates charisma, Washington never seems to have been as injuredat least in any enduring wayby the indignities he has suffered, but none-the-less he makes his mark.
The remainder of the troupe are game throughout. Matthew Kessen plays the stalwart reader as a curmudgeon trying to keep from being drawn into the enactment of his tales. Alison Anderson, Suzanne Victoria Cross, and Jason Kruger play the variety of other charactersneighbors, schoolmates, shop clerks, angels and pandas, all demonstrating great sketch comedy chops. Kessen, Cross and Kruger have worked with Washington in past Fearless Comedy productions, and their tight comradery lifts the level of their work, while newcomer Alison Anderson fits seamlessly into the action.
The whole shebang is directed by Jena Young with gusto, leaving no gap between one segment and the next, and deftly veering between moments of flat-out satire and scenes that raise a lump in the throat. The physical production is simple, though some effort has been made to provide costumes that ensure we know when we are looking at a panda, an angel, or a mere human mortal. Washington, a multi-talented fellow, designed the audio accompaniment that adds flavor to the proceedings.
In late 2016, Chameleon Theatre Circle intended to stage Caucasian-Aggressive Pandas and Other Mulatto Tales at what had been its long-time home base, The Ames Center, operated by the City of Burnsville. When Burnsville city officials gleaned the title, they refused to allow Chameleon to stage the play in their theater. The word "mulatto," they felt, was inappropriate for the marquee of a municipal venue. There was no discussion with the playwright about his reasons for using that word. Chameleon, this year, has parted ways with The Ames Center and the City of Burnsville, presenting their season at a number of different venues. Thankfully, they held their ground and included ...Pandas... in their 2017-2018 season. While individuals may be discomfited by the word "mulatto"and there are good reasons they might bethere has be no hue and cry, no calls to halt the production or change the title of the play, and Twin City audiences are the richer for it.
I cannot speak for Mr. Washington, but an obvious reason to use the word "mulatto" so prominently here is to dispel notions that we have come a great ways since that term was more commonly used. We may no longer turn out melodramatic plays and films, such as Imitation of Life built around the theme of the "tragic mulatto." But if we are less maudlin and sentimental about such matters, have we really moved toward inclusiveness that allows for individuals to proudly identify as something other than the three or four pre-determined boxes on the test sheet? Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' giddy assault on that device, An Octoroon, given a splendid production by Mixed Blood Theatre a couple of seasons back, addresses the same issue, skewering the old formats to show how much they still influence our current social behavior.
Though less a polished work of drama, Caucasian-Aggressive Pandas and Other Mulatto Tales reaches more to the heart than An Octoroon as Washington bares his lived experience, both the wounds and the absurdities, with a presence that cannot be denied. Would the show work as well without Washington's presence, both forceful and charming? Could another actor tell his story with as much conviction? That question will hopefully be answered in time, as there is certainly a need for this message, presented with firm conviction, yet in a manner that entertains, to reach beyond our local theater audience.
Caucasian-Aggressive Pandas and Other Mulatto Tales, through June 24, 2018, in the Black Box Theater at Artistry, Bloomington Center for the Arts, 1800 West Old Shakopee Road, Bloomington MN. Tickets: $25.00; Seniors and students: $22.00. For tickets call 952-232-0814 or go to www.chameleontheatre.org.
Writer: Derek "Duck" Washington; Director: Jenna Young; Scenic Design: Sadie Ward; Lighting Design: Andrew Troth; Audio Design: Duck Washington; Assistant Scenic Designer: Corinna Troth; Stage Manager: Kyle Decker; Producer for Chameleon Theatre Circle: Scott Gilbert; Producer for Fearless Comedy Productions: Duck Washington; Executive Producer: Megan West.
Cast: Alison Anderson, Suzanne Victoria Cross, Matthew Kessen, Jason Kruger, and Duck Washington.