“Undesirable Elements” at 20
Back in 1992, Ping Chong–director, writer, choreographer–was invited to present a gallery show at Artist Space. As the story goes, not too long before the show, called “A Facility for the Channeling and Containment of Undesirable Elements,” was to open, the curator suggested Chong present a performance as part of the events. Inspired by a dinner he’d recently been at where everyone around the table spoke a different language, Chong decided to present a simple documentary performance. He gathered a small group of non-performers from the community, each with different backgrounds, and directed them to present their own experience, to tell their own stories.
And so “Undesirable Elements” was born, on October 22, 1992. Twenty years later, “Undesirable Elements” has become the Ping Chong and Company’s long running series. Given Chong’s diversity as an artist, I hesitate to call it a “signature” piece, but it’s certainly one of the company’s best known projects, and a core part of what they do. To celebrate the anniversary, the company is currently in the middle of a three-week festival of works at La Mama (through Nov. 4), and have recently published a collection of four of the texts from the series through TCG.
In the intervening two decades, there have been, according to associate director Sara Zatz, between forty and fify iterations of the project. The exact number is somewhat difficult to pin down (the company is also undertaking an online documentation project currently) because over time, the same episode would incorporate different people. But the essential concept remains largely unchanged. The group of participants, maybe a half-dozen at most, are seated in a half-circle of chairs facing the audience. In front of each is a music stand for the text. The lighting is simple and spare: the performers are either lit from above to shift focus, or the entire group can be lit. Ping Chong refers to “Undesirable Elements” as “a seated opera for the spoken word.” The only other scenic element is the video projections, which have evolved over time to meet changing demands of the content.
Chong’s initial inspiration was to present a sort of Towel of Babel effect onstage, by presenting people of different linguistic backgrounds revealing themselves. Pieces often begin with the performers reciting poetry or singing in their native tongues. The idea was to expose the diversity of experiences from members of the same geographic community, and earlier on, “Undesirable Elements” was always structured this way: Chong and company would work with people in a given city, such that the resultant work became a sort of patchwork quilt of difference in a place. But the focus on the experience of the individuals naturally led to more ambitious themes.
Indeed, the Undesirable Elements Festival is presenting three works that are less about the cultural differences between the subjects onstage as it is using the diversity of their stories around a shared experience to reveal the core subject. Last week, I saw Cry for Peace: Voices from the Congo, the most recent episode in the series, featuring a half-dozen members of Syracuse, New York’s Congolese immigrant community, all but one of whom lived through the violence that’s ravaged that nation over the past three decades. While their individual stories are different, owing to age, location, tribe, etc., eventually they all converge in Syracuse, where in exile, the disparate groups–victims and victimizers together–struggle to build a new sense of community even as they grapple with forgiveness for a legacy of horrendous violence.
The other works in the current festival are similarly structured around a common theme. This week the company presents Secret Survivors, with the stories of adult survivors of child sexual abuse, and next week they present Inside/Out…voices from the disability community.
Creating documentary theater around such challenging and emotionally fraught subjects presents special and unique problems. Sara Zatz, who began her career in theater as an intern at Ping Chong in 2000 and has been working on “Undesirable Elements” since 2002, discussed some of them with me over the phone last week.
“These shows definitely have an educational component, and sometimes a political component as well,” she explained. “But I always think the artistry comes first, and the educational or political goal, if we’re successful, is coming through the artistry. So our first goal is to tell these stories of difference, to bring these unheard stories to the stage from people or communities who are marginalized.”
Stressing that the company makes clear to participants at the beginning of each new process that they’re artists, not therapists, a role for which they’re just not cut out, the company identifies individuals who are comfortable enough to share their experiences.
“The first and most important that we’re looking for in terms of the people who are chosen to be in the project is that they want to tell their stories,” she said. “No matter what they’ve been through or how traumatic their experiences have been.”
There are also a series of events around the festival that seek to further explore these sorts of issues. Culturebot’s Andy Horwitz is moderating a discussion on Sat., Oct. 27 at 4:30 p.m. on “Social Practice and the Arts,” featuring David Brick of Philadelphia’s Headlong Dance Theater, Sojourn’s Michael Rohd, El Museo del Barrio’s Gonzalo Casals (who presented Secret Survivors last year), and 651 Arts Shay Wafer (with whom the company is working on a new “UE” episode), in addition to Chong himself.
As for the future, “Undesirable Elements” is entering its third decade going strong. In addition to a new project exploring the legacy of political activism in Brooklyn, the company is expanding the Secret Survivors project by partnering with non-theater organizations around the country to develop new editions of the show with local survivors. This Fri., Oct. 26 from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., the company will be hosting a screening of the documentary Secret Survivors: Using Theater to Break the Silence, and sharing information about the project.