Ping Chong

Theater director, playwright, and video artist
Head shot of Ping Chong
Photo by Adam Nadel
Transcript for Ping Chong Podcast Excerpts from "My Luck“ by Broke For Free from the EP Directionless, used courtesy of Creative Commons and found on WFMU's Free Music Archive. (Music up) Ping Chong: Whenever I am asked to come and work with young people, I try to not only teach them the art of theater, but also something about citizenship. Jo Reed: That’s theater director, playwright, and video artist Ping Chong, talking about his recent work, Collidescope: Adventures in Pre- and Post-Racial America and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed. For over 45 years, Ping Chong has created innovative works of theater and art that explore the intersection of race, history, culture, and technology. And that intersection is exactly where we can find his recent work, Collidescope: Adventures in Pre- and Post-Racial America, which was co-written and co-directed with Ping’s long-time collaborator, Talvin Wilks. Collidescope is a visionary play that moves back and forth through time, connecting the dots between America's violent racial history and current social unrest. Touching on different historic moments from a 1774 slave petition, to Fanny Lou Hamer's dramatic 1964 testimony about the racist violence she endured in Mississippi when she tried to register to vote, to a James Baldwin speech in London, which are interspersed with fictional scenes from the Great Depression and the antebellum South. And because Ping Chong always wants us to see with fresh eyes, the action of the play takes place in a laboratory-like setting from the viewpoint of an extra-terrestrial. The result is a provocative, timely and visually arresting piece of theater. Last month, Collidescope had its world premiere at the Clarice Smith Center for the performing arts at the University of Maryland with a remarkable cast composed entirely of students. I spoke with Ping a few days after Collidescope's opening and asked him for a little more background about the play. Ping Chong: Well, when the Trayvon Martin killing happened, I felt that I wanted to do something around that issue, and I had, a couple of years before, worked on a theater work about the American Civil War, which I aborted. And between Trayvon and the Civil War, I thought perhaps I should do a show that gives some kind of essentialized history of black and white race in the United States. And so, what started as a work that was going to be around Trayvon Martin turned into a work that was looking at connecting black and white race history through time. So the work turned into a work that moved back and forth in time, a kind of time machine to give a kind of bird’s-eye view of the black and white race issue. Jo Reed: Now, you examine this legacy of black and white relations in the United States from the point of view of an alien. Ping Chong: Yes. Jo Reed: An extraterrestrial. Ping Chong: Right. Jo Reed: Why that perspective? Ping Chong: Well, I don’t know if you’re aware of the series of articles that Nicholas Kristof has been writing about race in America, you know, this past year-- Jo Reed: Yeah. Ping Chong: --but reading some of the commentary coming in, you know, some of the people who wrote in, saying, “Oh, you know, they should get over it. They’ve got a black president. We’re moving into a new time and era,” shows a kind of lack of historic consciousness of the reality of being black in America. And so, I see that it’s difficult to talk about race in America, because some people-- many people in this country think, “Oh, we’ve talked this to death, and we don’t want to talk about it anymore.” So I felt that taking a point of view that was unusual would bring a possible fresh point of view to the work, so taking an extraterrestrial point of view makes it more objective and more interesting. Jo Reed: Collidescope is a mixture of documented historical moments and fictional scenes. Ping Chong: That’s correct. Jo Reed: Explain that approach. Ping Chong: I thought that it gives the show more variety and more-- keeps the audience on their toes, as to what’s going to come next. I kind of loosely thought of the show as being a series of cliffhangers, from scene to scene. In the same sense that you might say-- like the Flash Gordon series in the 1930s. I wanted each scene to end inconclusive, but leaving you hanging so that you would be curious enough to keep moving forward with us. Another strategy that I used in the show, as you noticed, was that I did cross-gender casting-- Jo Reed: I was going to ask you, yes. Ping Chong: And I also had African Americans playing whites, you know. All of these are to make the audience look at the situation in a different way than they’ve done before. It is a strategy to make them look at this history in a fresh way. Jo Reed: And before we get to what happens on the stage, I really would like you to describe the set, because that is hand-in-glove with the whole notion of this viewpoint being that of an extraterrestrial. Ping Chong: As I said, the show moves back and forth in historical time in the history of black and white race history, but nothing in the production is period, in the traditional sense. Meaning, one of the scenes takes place pre-American Revolutionary War, no one’s wearing period costume, and when we’re in the Civil War, no one’s wearing period costume. And the set is not a realistic set. I always thought of it as in a spaceship, and part of the-- a kind of laboratory in which you could say, possibly, it’s a hologram of earthly events. Possibly, it’s a restaging by the aliens, who might look like human beings, to examine this history. So the set is kind of a very minimalist, modernist-looking, cool set. Jo Reed: It’s a pretty spectacular set, considering that it is a minimalist set. Ping Chong: Yes, because of the very elaborate media that we use in the show, which has, you know, media that is in motion during the show. Jo Reed: It’s a great set. Ping Chong: Thank you. Jo Reed: Perfect for that venue. Ping Chong: Yeah. I will let the set designer know, who’s a grad student at the University of Maryland. All the designers, with the exception of the sound designer, were grad students, and they did an amazing job. Jo Reed: They most certainly did. Ping Chong: This is College Park. Yeah. Jo Reed: This is a work you created with a longtime collaborator of yours, Talvin Wilks. Ping Chong: That’s correct. Jo Reed: How did you two decide which moments you would put on the stage? And I’m talking about not the fictional ones, but the documented ones, because this is, you know, such a wide range. You start before the Revolutionary War. Ping Chong: Mm-hmm. But one of the things that we knew was that, because the subject is such an epic subject, that we couldn’t possibly do it as a linear work, meaning just going from the beginning of American history all the way up to the present. It was quite impossible to do in an evening, and so I-- my approach to it was to do it with a more poetic and essentialized syntax. That’s why I wanted to jump from place to place, from time to time, and make the audience connect the dots in the history. I know that Talvin had his-- had always been interested in the Ossian Sweet trial in Detroit, of the African-American doctor who moved into a white neighborhood in Detroit, which ended in a kind of tragic situation and a trial. Jo Reed: Right, that was in 1925 when he defended himself against a white mob. Ping Chong: Right, I know that Talvin was interested in doing a show about that, even before we talked about the Trayvon project, and I know that we wanted to have a female subject in the show, as well, and he took the lead to find the Fannie Lou Hamer scene in the show. And also the Robeson, we were both interested-- I mean, I was already interested in Robeson, and Talvin was, too, of course, and then-- so when he found that, we also felt that that should go in, as well, because we were interested, also, not only about race, but about citizenship. Jo Reed: And that was Paul Robeson’s testimony in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Ping Chong: Exactly. The show was really as much about citizenship and about the promise of the Constitution, and the promise of what this nation says it is, and what it isn’t for so many people in this country. Jo Reed: What it means to be a citizen. Ping Chong: Exactly. And so I, in my research during the course of this show, I was reading a lot of James Baldwin’s essays, and I decided to look up interviews he did on YouTube, and I found the interview that we wound up using in the show, which I knew was the climax of the show. I knew that the show should end with this scene of him speaking in London. So that’s how those sections were chosen. Jo Reed: And ending with that James Baldwin speech-- that speech seemed to sum up everything that was discussed in that play. Ping Chong: Exactly. Jo Reed: It was amazing. Ping Chong: It’s the whole idea was that everything that happened before it converges in that one vessel that’s the James Baldwin speech. <recording, Moriamo Akibu as James Baldwin in Collidescope> Well, if the day comes when you realize that you cannot make yourself heard. That the people you are addressing are pleading for them and for you, and the plea is a very simple one. They’re saying look at it. Look at all the mountains of nonsense that have been written and everything that has been said. They get the Negro problem. Don’t write any voting acts – we had that; it’s called the 15th Amendment. Don’t look at the Civil Rights Bill of 1964. What you have to look at is what is really happening in this country, and what is really happening in this country is that brother has murdered brother knowing it was his brother. White men have lynched Negroes knowing them to be their sons. White women have had Negroes burned knowing them to be their lovers. It is not a racial problem. It is a problem of whether you are willing to look at your life and be responsible for it, and then begin to change it. That great Western house I come from is one house, and I am one of the children of that house. Simply, I am the most despised child of that house. It is because the American people are unable to face the fact that I am the flesh of their flesh, bone of their bone, created by them. My blood and my father’s blood is in that soil. They cannot face that. <end of recording> Jo Reed: And Moriamo Akibu performed James Baldwin’s Speech. She was remarkable. Ping Chong: She’s great. I mean, I think she must be like-- I think she’s only about 20, you know? She was amazing. But you know, I started working with her, and she sped through it like she was driving a racecar when I first worked with her. And I said, “People need to hear what you’re saying, and you need to use the silences to give it weight.” And she came through. Jo Reed: Yeah, she sure did. Ping Chong: She was great. Jo Reed: You also have fictional scenes interspersed with these historical ones, and one is like a three-act mini play set during the Depression, and then there’s also a scene set in the antebellum South that is repeated, well partially repeated, almost exactly. Ping Chong: Only the beginning of it was repeated exactly. The scenes are actually different within them. It was the very beginning. Jo Reed: But then it ends exactly. Ping Chong: Yeah. Yeah. So it’s kind of a theme and variation. Jo Reed: Right. Much better put. Ping Chong: Yeah. Jo Reed: Tell me how you derived these two. Ping Chong: Well, the Civil War section was something that I had, as I said, started as a show about the Civil War, and when I began that project, I was interested in how the South was seeing the world at that time, and how the South justified their peculiar institution. As they put it. Or “that recent unpleasantness,” <laughs> as they put it, also, you know? And the other section was inspired by a play by Richard Wright, so it’s kind of a riff on that. Jo Reed: Yeah. I’m not familiar with it. That’s pretty-- it’s pretty spectacular. Ping Chong: Yeah. It’s in a very late collection of short writings of his, called Eight Men, which I think is a wonderful collection, and very daring, in many ways. Jo Reed: The actors were all students. Ping Chong: Absolutely-- all undergrads. <laughs> Jo Reed: They were extraordinary. Ping Chong: The thing was, it was an extremely challenging project for them, and I turned it-- I said to Talvin many times, I said, “We’re asking these kids to do a very challenging show in every way, in terms of the subject matter, in terms of the demands on them to carry such lengthy-- in some cases, some very lengthy material on stage, single-handedly, almost. And they rose to the challenge, and that was one of the most satisfying things about it. Jo Reed: I’m curious what the audition process was like for this. Ping Chong: Well, because I had written the Civil War scenes already, I brought some of those-- some of which didn’t end up in the show, even. The Robeson we already had excerpted from the actual HUAC interrogations. So we had a couple of things that we could bring that was close to what we had in mind. We also did something very unusual for an audition, which is that I, in fact, met the three grad designers before I did the audition. So, when we actually did the audition, the grad designers had already come up with the set design and the costume designs. Very unusual. And we actually presented that to the kids who came in for the audition, so they knew where we were going with this material. Jo Reed: You’ve been in the theater for a very long time. When did you first begin in theater? Ping Chong: Nineteen seventy-two. Jo Reed: Nineteen seventy-two. And did you come to the theater as an actor, a director, a playwright, a dancer? Ping Chong: Actually, I would say, in 1972, I was part of the New York avant-garde. I was a member of Meredith Monk’s company. Jo Reed: Aha. Ping Chong: So I actually started in dance, although my background was in film and visual arts. Jo Reed: Your work pretty much operates at the intersection of social responsibility and innovation. Would you say that’s fair? Ping Chong: That’s more than fair. <laughs> I thought you were going to say I’m an interdisciplinary artist, which is really the truth. Jo Reed: Yes. Ping Chong: Yes. Jo Reed: I think that is true, too, because I saw your six grants from the NEA in four different genres. <laughs> Ping Chong: Yeah. Right. Ping Chong: And I-- in fact, right now, I’m actually doing a anniversary print for the List Visual Arts Center, for MIT, which I did my first art installation, and I’m [sic] been approached to create a commissioned dance work for 2016. So yeah, I continue to be interdisciplinary. Jo Reed: Was your motivation to become an artist-- I know this might be a very reductive question, but I’m curious if you were driven by creativity, or driven by social justice. And I know that’s really reductive, but what I mean was, were you inflamed by a passion for social justice, and you saw the arts as a wonderful vehicle for that, or were you an artist who was also inflamed by social justice? Ping Chong: You know, I’ve always-- I’ve pretty much been a single-mindedly artistic person. I came from two generations before me in the theater. My grandfather and my father were Chinese opera directors and librettists, and my mother was a diva, and my father’s best friend was a scenic drop painter. So I started out in life going to an art high school, and then went to Pratt Institute, in New York, to study painting and fine arts, and then went to the School of Visual Arts, and after that studied with Meredith Monk. So, I’m a combination of all these forces that has created the kind of artist I am today. As far as which came first, I would say that my love of creativity came first, but the social justice aspect came very early in my life, you know, as a young boy, I was aware of injustice. I didn’t know that the work would move in that direction, of course, and not all my work is about that, but because of the world we live in today, I feel that, as an artist, it’s important-- and as a citizen, it’s important, as an artist-citizen-- to do my part to try to keep people more aware and more conscious of their responsibility to a just world. I think that’s probably the best way to put it. So, in my small way, in my little way as a theater artist, I want to do what I can to make people responsible. And making Collidescope is, for me, is one of those attempts to tell this country that we can’t ignore this history, because even the fictional sections of that show, are based on fact. Jo Reed: I’d like to have you discuss-- because I’m very curious about Collidescope’s relation to Undesirable Elements, that massive multiyear project. But if you could just, please, first explain briefly what Undesirable Elements is? Ping Chong: The Undesirable Elements series began as a project of giving voice to communities in this country that are not heard as much in the mainstream media, to create a space for them to talk about what it is, culturally, to be other in America; what are the gains and losses, and what happens to their identity, “being other” meaning that they are hyphenated Americans, as all people of color in this country are. And being a hyphenated American, in some sense, is a subtle way of not acknowledging that we are full Americans. Jo Reed: Well how does-- how does this play out on the stage? What happens? Ping Chong: Undesirable Elements is a series of oral history or storytelling theater works, with real people. They are not actors. And each of them I have interviewed for over two to three to four hours each, and I transcribed their narratives to script. And they’re usually about six or seven people on stage, with a microphone and a music stand with their script in front of them like a score-- it functions like a score. Jo Reed: Yeah. Ping Chong: And so in this show of the Undesirable Elements series-- which there have been over 55 incarnations of, nationally and internationally-- it’s always been about the question of, “What is it to be different, and what is it to give up your cultural identity, or negotiate your cultural identity, when you come from somewhere else?” So there’s overlap between what Collidescope is and what Undesirable Elements is, is that-- in that African Americans in this country have always been forced to be other. Jo Reed: How does the audience respond to this? Ping Chong: I think of Undesirable Elements as a communion. When the audience comes into the theater, they see six or seven people on stage, and they read them in whatever way they read them, visually, meaning they might have stereotypes about them, they might not know who they are. You know, we all judge each other by first appearances, and this was a show where, when you first see these people, you don’t know who they are. You don’t know that you have anything in common with them. But by the end of the show, the differences of these people results, actually, ironically, in the sense of communion with the audience, in the sense that we are all human beings. And we may have all these differences, but we all go through the same fundamental experiences of being human. And that was a function of Undesirable Elements, that difference is actually not a negative, but a plus. Jo Reed: And don’t you find that true, for example, in literature? It’s almost as though the more specific a writer is, the more universal the story becomes. Ping Chong: Right. Yes. Yes. Jo Reed: I know you have a company, Ping Jong & Company. Do members of that company come together to work on the series Undesirable Elements?   Ping Chong: Well, with the Undesirable Elements series, there are teaching artists who do that in public schools, but also teach workshops, and then there are people, co-collaborators, who make their own productions of Undesirable Elements. For example, Sara Zatz, who’s a key member of my company, directs her own productions of Undesirable Elements, and codirects Undesirable Elements. Right now, we are planning an all-Muslim cast in New York City about what it is to be Muslim in New York City. But it’s also about what it is to be Muslim at this moment in this nation, which isn’t such a comfortable place. Jo Reed: Place to be. Yeah. Ping Chong: But for us, it’s about making people understand that we-- the media blows everything out of proportion. Ninety-nine percent of Muslim people are just people like everybody else, but that the media blows up the fact that there are these terrorists, but they’re a very tiny percentage of what Muslims are. Most Muslims are law-abiding citizens, you know, and they just want to get by in life, like the rest of us, you know? If we were to judge the KKK as all Christians--that gives you some of the same idea, you know? But people don’t seem to see that, and I have to blame the media. Jo Reed: It’s that, and I also think we’re in an age of media where you can pretty much pick the media that speaks to your beliefs. Ping Chong: Right. Right, and that’s also problematic now. Jo Reed: Which, obviously, is so limiting. Yeah. Ping Chong: Yeah. Yeah. Well, that’s why, when I’m in a situation like the University of Maryland at College Park, whenever I am asked to come and work with young people, I try to not only teach them the art of theater, but also something about citizenship, and also something about the unofficial history, because we all know that every country writes an official history which is very different than the actual history. Every country. People need to know that African Americans have had a very raw deal all along, and continue to have a raw deal today. Jo Reed: And it’s less that there have been so many conversations about race. I think there’ve been so many conversations around race. Ping Chong: At least right now, there seems to be some willingness to talk, even if some people are saying, “Oh, we don’t want to hear about this anymore.” But it’s there. It’s happening. Because, undeniably, the Trayvon Martin thing last year, the-- Jordan Davis getting killed, and the Michael Brown situation is provoking conversation. And Michael Brown might have been a foolish, teenager, which he probably was, you know, in this situation, you know-- but he’s a teenager. Teenagers do silly, stupid things. That’s what teenagers do, you know? And he didn’t deserve to die. Jo Reed: Making a living as an artist is always very difficult. Making a living when you’re an innovator out of the avant-garde who deals with work of social justice? A lot harder. Ping Chong: Definitely. But I’ve managed to survive without being commercial. It’s not easy. Jo Reed: No, it’s not. Ping Chong: It’s not easy, but I’ve managed. Ping Chong: Artists are totally other in this country. I think part of my sympathy, my empathy, comes from that, certainly; certainly comes from being an immigrant, certainly from being a person of color. You know, I mean, there’s two things that are so essential to a better world. One is empathy, the other is that we learn not to be in denial of the things that aren’t right. But denial is actually something nobody talks much about. But denial is one of the real shadows in human existence, this--our incredible ability to be in denial. The race situation is certainly that. Jo Reed: It’s interesting, because I think the arts offer a way, certainly, towards empathy. It’s very hard to see a piece of theater or be moved by a book without it targeting your empathy. I mean, that’s what it’s about. And the arts also have the capacity, in fact, to shine a light on things that people are denying. Ping Chong: That is the role of the artist, is to shine a mirror. You know? We’re like the outsiders who can look at the situation in a cooler light, and is able to look at it dispassionately, you know? Jo Reed: I mentioned you’ve gotten many awards, including six fellowships from the NEA in four different genres. I know they’ve occurred over the course of your career, but as a producer for the NEA, I’m very curious about what those awards meant for you. Ping Chong: Well, they meant I could keep going. <laughs> They meant that I could keep doing what I love. I feel very privileged to have been able to work as an artist for 45 years, 45-plus years. A photographer friend of mine said to me-- she came to see Collidescope, and she said, “It must be hard to leave, at the end of a show, you know, all those people that you’ve been a team part of.” And I said, “That’s the beauty and the sadness of being in the theater, is that you have this incredible bond with people, and you’re all pushing this rock up a hill, and then you get it up there, and then you have to leave.” You know? And over and over again. It’s kind of like Sisyphus, or something, you know? But that’s also the beauty of it, and that’s also metaphorical of our lives. We always lose the people around us, sooner or later, you know? That’s just the way it is. And that’s how it is in being in the theater. But my experience with those kids at Maryland, and the designers, was-- it was incredibly harmonious. It was difficult for the kids, definitely difficult, but they really, really rose to the challenge, and they were beautiful. I just loved them. You know, they were just wonderful kids. Many of them spoke up about their experience working on Collidescope, you know? And that was-- that’s why I like doing this with kids, because for them, they learn something beyond the craft. They learn something about the world they lived in, not that it’s pleasant always, but at least they learn more. Jo Reed: Well, Ping, what is next for Collidescope? Ping Chong: Well, we certainly hope to take it to another level. Talvin ran off the next day. He was there Sunday for the understudies’ run, and then he took off for Texas to work with Urban Bush Women. He just kept going. Fortunately for me, I got to come home. And we plan to get back together and debrief on Collidescope, and keep working on it. From my point of view, the show is a great first shot at it, but I think we still want to do a little more work on it. We’re confident that we will do it elsewhere, both professionally and in a university setting. As I said, for me, it’s a project that has both professional-- a professional future and a pedagogical one. Jo Reed: It was a great show. I was really just blown away by it. Ping Chong: Thank you. Jo Reed: Ping Chong thank you so much for coming. I really appreciate you giving me your time. Ping Chong: Thank you. (Music up) Jo Reed: That was multi-disciplinary artist Ping Chong. He co-wrote and co-directed Collidescope with collaborator Talvin Wilkes. We heard Moriamo Akibu perform an excerpt of James Baldwin’s Speech at the West Indian Student Center in London. She's a senior at the University of Maryland. You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts.  To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.  

Ping Chong, a visionary citizen-artist and six-time NEA grantee, connects racial history to our current unrest in his recent play, Collidescope: Adventures in Pre- and Post-Racial America.