Talking to Ping Chong and Michael Rohd
During a visit to my hometown in Ohio, a friend invited me to Kent State Universitys production of Blind Ness The Irresistible Light of Encounter. The show is a multi-disciplinary theater work that uses movement, puppetry and projections to explore Joseph Conrads Heart of Darkness, the late 19th century acquisition of the Congo as a personal colony of King Leopold II of Belgium, the exploitation of the Congolese people and the human rights movement that arose as a result of the Belgian abuses. Blind Ness was produced as part of a seven week residency at Kent States drama department with world renowned writer, director and theater artist Ping Chong, and his collaborator Michael Rohd and opens in New York June 18.
It is rare to see this kind of theatre in Ohio. Even more surprising was that a group of musical theater students at Kent State were creating this kind of theater and that local audiences were being exposed to it. There is an ironic parallel between the shows exploration of the imposition of culture on the native other and the cultural translation that occurs within our own country, like Ping Chong and Companys journey to bring sophisticated theater to the wilds of Ohio. While the Belgians were negating and exploiting natives, Ping Chongs encounter has been one of education, collaboration and cultural transaction.
On June 18th Ping Chong and Company are bringing several of the Kent students to LaMaMa, ETC to do a short run of Blind Ness. At the rehearsal I attended last week, the company began the day by discussing what they have seen, done and experienced in this new empire, and Ping is making sure that these students are exposed to all of the cultural gems the city has to offer during their short stay; from discount downtown theater to dim sum dumplings in Chinatown. Both the New York actors and the Ohio students are excited to be in the city, and while the production had mixed responses in Ohio, they are looking forward to its reception in New York.
I set up an interview with Ping Chong, who generously let me speak with Michael Rohd as well.
Meryl : Ok, so right off the bat, why did you choose Joseph Conrads Heart of Darkness as the departure point for Blind Ness?
Ping Chong: Well, it wasnt the point of departure for the production. The departure point was actually Adam Hochschilds King Leopolds Ghost. Conrads Heart of Darkness actually wasnt originally part of the concept. I mean it came in pretty early but it wasnt really originally part of it. I cant really tell you when I decided to incorporate it. Possibly because I wanted to work with puppets and things, and I was interested in trying Heart of Darkness out with shadow play. And also, its the kind of mythical version of the story. Its kind of like a doppelganger thing if you think of the Leopold part and the Marlowe part.
Meryl: So then what was it about King Leopolds Ghost that inspired you to create this production?
Ping: Well, its really the history of the Congo that initially interested me. A very long time ago really, you know it goes back maybe even fifteen years, when I first learned about the atrocities in the Congo. I was reading a book called Cambodia: A Book For People Who Find Television Too Slow, and that interestingly enough was a book that was about the Cambodian genocide as well as the killings at Kent State University! Yeah, very peculiar. And in a footnote they mention that this other genocide occurred in the Congo where the soldiers, the Belgians, were demanding an accounting from the Force Publique by having human hands cut off as evidence for accounting purposes for the use of bullets. So thats when I was intrigued by it. This was more than fifteen years ago, but I didnt really look into it. And then when King Leopolds Ghost came out I went, Well, I want to do this.
Meryl: Have you ever been to the Congo?
Ping: No but I did go to Belgium and Michael went on one of the trips to Brussels with me: to the Royal Congolese Museum that Leopold founded and created to glorify his accomplishments in the Congo. I talked about possibly going to the Congo but I didnt think there was that much to gain by going, because the place is a total wreck, there is no public transportation the roads have all fallen apart. It has kind of reverted back to its pre- industrial state because of European mischief essentially.
Meryl: How do you feel? I know in a lot of your work you explore East-West relations throughout history, the idea of exploitation, and colonialism. Are there are many parallels with what is going on today?
Ping: Right. Well thats the other reason that this project interested me because it was a story of media manipulation which of course is totally resonant with our time. And more recently it resonates very heavily because the Congo was the first photographed atrocity. So it totally resonates with the present right now. [ED: at the time of the interview the Abu Ghraib scandal had just surfaced.] This exploitation of the Congo happened at the advent of the portable camera. It was the impetus for the first international human rights movement. Especially the fact that the Congo was a private corporation with investors when it started, and that it didnt belong to Belgium, it belonged to Leopold, personally. The Belgian government had to find out what was going on in the Congo. They didnt know. All of these things relate very strongly to the present.
Meryl: So it was a major historical turning point?
Ping: Well, yes. And the other parallel that resonates with the present is that it was in the second half of the nineteenth century, when the industrial revolution was peaking, which is certainly the other technological high point next to the one we are living in right now. It was the rise of the automobile, and the rise of electricity and telephones and telegraphs. Its a very, very similar time in that sense. So for all those reasons I felt it was an extremely timely subject.
Meryl: Michael, how do you feel the show speaks to modern audiences?
Michael: I think that if you are open to the notion or considering the notion that we are in a time of empire building, and a time of morally ambiguous economically led choices often on the part of our government and policy makers, if you think that might be the case, then I think that you will highly resonate with what you see happening in the empire building in Africa. Theres also another issue which is the way that the West demonized the African. The dehumanization of the African allowed many whites who went over as collecting agents and officers to really visit these tremendous atrocities on Africans because they saw them as less than human. Im very intrigued by how that relates to prison guards in Iraq and other prisons around the world, since we have sort of historically done a pretty specific job of demonizing Arabs and Muslims in the past batch of years And yes, it has changed, I think there is less and less tolerance for that now, but I still think there is a culture of othering around that. I think, in terms of whats been going on with those abuses, one has to think well would those abuses have occurred if it was a conflict where the enemy, the other side, was white skinned? And if not, what does that have to do with how we are cultivating now around difference? Thats interesting to me.
Meryl: Ping, youre quoted as saying that you felt King Leopold is kind of like the first CEO?
Ping: Yeah, (chuckle) you know, I mean he wasnt. You could say JP Morgan or Andrew Carnegie all those guys were. I dont think that it is actually accurate to say he was the first CEO, but he was certainly one of the first CEOs you know international.
Meryl: Michael what intrigued you about Blind Ness and the script, or how did you and Ping Chong come together on it?
Michael: Well when he first mentioned that he wanted to do a piece about central Africa and the history of the Congo, the story of King Leopold is not a story that I had ever heard. And the thing is – I grew up, I went through high school, I went through undergrad and I got a graduate degree – and the fact that Im a decently educated guy living in the U.S. in contemporary times and I dont know the story of arguably a greater atrocity than the Hitler and Stalin empires put together, the fact Ive never heard the story, thats amazing to me. So I just felt that one, the story needs to get out there. And two, I feel like the resonance between the story of Leopold and the story of empire building in the current world are pretty powerful as well and I wanted to be a part of putting those out there.
Meryl: I am very intrigued by your title, Blind Ness The Irresistible Light of Encounter. Why did you choose it?
Ping: Well originally it was called Darkness, but the Kent State office sent us their publicity image of the African continent in black and the word Darkness coming out of it in white and I said, I am not going — I dont like perpetuating this idea of Africa as The Dark Continent. So I went and scrambled and found another title which I think is actually much, much closer to what the experience of encounter is. You see, but youre blind. You know what I mean, you dont see.
Meryl: Right, you have this one civilization going into the country and not really seeing the people and their culture for what they are, but instead for what they arent, or are lacking.
Ping: Right, right! And the first worlds image of Africa to this day, is; theyve got tribal warfare, theyre technologically primitive, its all their own fault. The implication is that theyre somehow, in terms of evolution, a lower people. But, if you look into the history, who is really responsible for the mess Africa is in today? I even recently met a journalist, who – not that a journalists cant be racist – but this journalist implied that the reason that theyre in such a mess is they have all these tribal warfare problems. And I said Wait a minute, wait a minute. Who drew these boundaries that didnt exist this way? And who doesnt have tribal problems? What was Yugoslavia? A picnic? What was World War I? What was World War II? You know, what is this?
So, theres a perpetuation of Africa as the Dark Continent. The other thing is that it is to the First World countries’ advantage – not just Europe, the United States is certainly a big culprit in terms of the exploitation of Africa – it is to the First Worlds interest that Africa remain a mess. It is much easier to have black market resources than to have to pay a legitimate government duties and taxes to help that country develop. None of the European powers really allowed education to proliferate in Africa so that any of those peoples were prepared for independence. And at this very moment in South Africa eighty percent of South Africas wealth belongs to the whites. All of these places did not contribute to educating people in those countries and in the Congo that was certainly the case. Even Lumumba wasnt really that prepared to run a country, nor his cabinet. So, Ive heard enough. Ive had enough of people calling Africa the Dark Continent.
Meryl: Tell me a little bit more about why you chose to bring this to Kent State and the process you explored while there.
Ping: Well ironically, after what I told you about the origins of my interest in this project, I was invited to Kent State to be in residence to create a work with students. I had wanted to do this show anyway and these days it is very hard for us to find residencies to create work. So when this was offered to us, I was interested in not only giving the students an experience in contemporary theater as a contemporary theater maker, but also to learn something about history in the process, because of course none of these kids knew about this part of history. So I created something thats really truly, from my point of view, interdisciplinary because it includes history as well as part of the aesthetic experience of that history, and created a piece. So thats why we did it at Kent. And now my collaborator Michael Rohd, has worked with me on eight productions as co- writer, and in some cases as co-director and some cases as actor/writer. We both share an interest on social issues and history.
Meryl: That interest is very evident in the script. How did the piece change during the workshops done at Kent State?
Ping: Michael and I arrived at Kent State and we had seven weeks to put the show up. We hit the ground running, we just had to start writing right there and then. My process is not, and Michaels process, isnt so much about sitting down and writing a play and handing it to the actors, its really more collaborative. But its also not absolutely one way or the other either. There are parts of the script that both of us really pretty much sat down and wrote, and then parts of the script that some of our lead actors in the show co-wrote, which then we re tweaked and re wrote. So its a very collaborative process and when I work with my designers I usually give them some concept to go with and then let them run free to bring their creativity into the mix.
Meryl: Michael, whats it like working with Ping?
Michael: Well, working with Ping is pretty great. We met at a workshop of his I was taking about seven years ago, and the condition of the workshop was you had to bring a piece of material you were working on and then he would work with you on it over the week. There were twenty of us, and the piece I was working on he was interested in and at the end of the week he asked me if I would like to work further with him on it and develop it into a full show. So, that became Truth and Beauty which was the first collaboration of ours that was published in American Theatre about three or four years ago. But, when you are working with someone youre trying to find what strengths you bring to it and when to step aside and let the other person take the front. And trying to figure out where the overlaps are but also what you might bring to the room thats just different. We write really well together, which is really fun.
Meryl: You direct and act as well?
Michael: Yeah, yeah. When he and I work together we often co-write, co-direct and I often perform in those shows as well.
Meryl: How has the process been for you with going to Kent State?
Michael: (Chuckle) It was pretty intense at Kent State.
Michael: Yeah. We were there for eight weeks and like Ping said we were just running from the beginning. It was really, intense, but it was fun. And we are still talking to each other, which is amazing after such an intense project.
Meryl: Do you get into fights often?
Michael: Absolutely we get into fights often. Whats great is that when you work with someone for a while, a fight doesnt put the relationship at stake, it just puts the choice of the moment at stake. So yeah, absolutely! And at a certain point things get so comfortable that you almost start to have them in front of other people and people are kind of O.K. with it because they know what is going on.
Meryl: (Big laugh). Thats funny! So when you were out at Kent State did you start writing when you got there, or did you have any of it done?
Michael: We had done a lot of research, but we started writing truly the day we arrived. The Heart of Darkness adaptation was pretty much done but all the other texts we generated there.
Meryl: Ping said that you brought a lot of it from the book King Leopolds Ghost?
Michael: Well there are a lot of facts in that book that are inevitable if you are going to be telling this story and there are even structural things that are interesting, but its not an adaptation of the book. However, the book was sort of invaluable in figuring out the story.
Meryl: And why did you decide to incorporate Heart of Darkness?
Michael: I was unclear on it at first. Ping had to bring me up to speed and, in a way, persuade me. As I began to think more about it, and understand more and more the myth of Africa to the Europeans and Americans and white culture at that time in our history, it made sense. Heart of Darkness really hits on that idea of the Dark Continent, and the idea of the lie that Western civilization was telling itself about what they were doing in Africa. So, it just seemed like a really interesting layer. Heart of Darkness was written in response to the King Leopold story.
Meryl: Have there been changes to the show since its production at Kent?
Michael: Yeah, there have been some little bits of rewriting and some tweaking but it’s pretty much the same show. I think it’s stronger, tighter, cleaner.
Meryl: Ping, what makes this show different from past productions that your company has done?
Ping: Well, I dont get a chance to have a cast of seventeen very often, and certainly it makes it tougher to tour, but it was fun to have a large cast. Thats one thing. And two, the projection work which is digital, was something relatively new to me. So Im learning a lot about that, thats new. At the end of the show we use a three dimensional puppet for Kurtzs intended, and that is the first time Ive used a three dimensional puppet of that sort. Ive used shadow plays from very early in my career, but not so much mixing that with projection and stuff. Its all just seminal at this point for me which I hope to take further in the future.
Meryl: You studied film in college right?
Ping: Yeah. I graduated in film. Thats a reason why my work is so synthetic. You know, why it is of zero interest of me to just have talking heads.
Meryl: Where did you learn about puppetry?
Ping: I did not learn about puppetry, it was just an instinctive natural thing I was interested in. Ive never been trained in theater either. At all. But my family comes from theater. Im third generation my parents and my grandfather were in the Chinese opera. I grew up watching that.
Meryl: So you just keep bringing it all together?
Ping: Its osmosis I think. Its part of my genes!
Meryl: How was the reaction of the audiences and the students that you were working with at Kent State to this subject material?
Michael: Well, the students we were working with had a pretty great experience on the project. But the audiences I think were really mixed. I think some people were really into it, I think some people had never seen theater like this, and I think some people honestly found its politics not to their liking. I think it will have a very different response in New York. And I am very intrigued by what that response will be.
Blind Ness the Irresistible Light of Encounter, will be performed at LaMaMa with several of Kent States drama department students as part of summer internship credits. While in the city they will perform with Bobby Bermea, Jeff Randall, Michael Rohd, and M. Burke Walker.
For Tickets call: 212.475.7710
June 18-20, 22-26 at 7:30 PM
June 20 and 27 at 2:30 PM
La MaMa, Annex Theater
74A East 4th Street, NYC