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April 14, 2016

B.A. Performance Weaves Tail of Chinese Legend and Identity

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Boom, boom, boom. As the drums pound, a blue silken waterfall ripples from the ceiling. With silks crisscrossing her torso, a girl is suspended high above the ground. She twists and proceeds to fall, the ribbons unraveling. The audience sits still, electrified. The silks snap back into place, catching her several feet off the mat, and she smiles triumphantly. 

The Monkey King, third-year Theater and Performance Studies (TAPS) major Andrew Mao’s B.A. performance, was staged in the Logan Center last weekend in collaboration with campus circus troupe Le Vorris & Vox, University Theater (UT), the Japanese percussion group Kojo Daiko, and China Care. The performance ran for 90 minutes, plus intermission.

The legend of the Monkey King, among the most famous stories in Chinese literature, centers on a powerful but lonely stone monkey who does not fit in. Gifted with immense strength, he proclaims himself the Handsome Monkey King and seeks to curry favor with the Jade Emperor in the hopes of becoming one of the gods. Instead, he is made lowly Master of the Horse and rebels, wreaking havoc on the imperial court and stealing a potion of immortality. The Buddha finally intervenes and imprisons him in the palm of his hand, which becomes a mountain. 

Mao’s adaption played out against the parallel narrative of a young Chinese girl adopted by a white American family. The little girl sits mutely as her adopted mother shuttles her from ballet classes to piano to French lessons, fluttering around her anxiously. In an attempt to connect her daughter to her culture, the mother reads her the story of the Monkey King.

Through acrobatics, juggling, traditional Chinese dancing, and tumbling, the travels and adventures of the Stone Monkey came to life—albeit in an often rushed and overwhelming manner. The subplot involving the little girl at times felt crammed in and heavy-handed, its tale of identity and belonging wrapped in a frantic explosion of props and twisting limbs. The ensemble—alternatingly a troupe of monkeys, a stable of horses, and female dancers—performed overly ambitious group stunts which often ended sloppily.

The colorful Dragon and Lion dances brought comic relief to the show. The shaggy gold lion with coquettish eyelashes gallivanted about the mats in a play fight scene and even shimmied over to the front row audience members who clapped along to the beat of the drums. 

On the other hand, the human characters were less endearing. The girl’s shrill-voiced and overbearing mother tried her best to help her daughter assimilate, but when it came to her adopted daughter’s culture, she seemed to conflate condescension with genuine understanding. Ultimately, the girl’s elementary-school teacher provided the blunt moral of the story, telling his former student, years later, about his own disorienting upbringing. “Reconciling your past with the present can be difficult,” he tells her. “When I see my reflection, I can see both worlds.”

Mao, who has been involved with circus since his first year, was drawn to the tale of the Monkey King due to his upbringing in the mostly white suburb of Hinsdale, IL.

“That’s why the Monkey King mattered to me. [He] is a creation of Heaven and Earth, and he doesn’t really belong to the monkeys,” Mao said. “So then he aspires to be the Jade Emperor himself. And that’s when he gets crushed in the reality of what he truly is.”

The idea to use the Monkey King as a means of exploring questions of identity and belonging first came to him at the end of his first year in the College; the choice to tell the parallel story of an adopted child came to him through his work with China Care, of which he is co-president. The group raises funds for medical treatments for Chinese orphans and helps adopted Chinese children in the Chicagoland area learn about their cultural roots.

Directing a performance of physical and emotional flexibility, Mao explored coming to terms with a complex personal identity and finding one’s voice in it. The blending of Western and Eastern theatrical traditions—Mao says he was heavily influenced by Beijing Opera—is a reflection of the girl herself and the two worlds she finds herself straddling. The three facets of the Monkey King are played by white students, an intentional move to demonstrate how the girl has inserted herself into the story and reflecting her inner world onto its characters. The music undergirding the show itself was a mix of traditional Chinese folk music and contemporary Western beats.

It is only at the very end that the little girl—now grown and a new sister-to-be—stops being an observer and finds her own voice. It will be her responsibility to share the story of the Monkey King with her new adopted sister and tell her of a home she never knew about. Shedding her mask, she joins the Monkey King on the ropes and soars above the ground.

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