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Sunday Morning Michael Dale: Selling More Than The Sizzle

Jaime Sunwoo on the significance of SPAM in Asian American culture and Taylor Mac and Matt Ray throw the hottest jazz funeral in town.

"In many ways, being Asian American has a lot in common with SPAM...

We're marginalized, misunderstood, born in America yet questioned by white Americans, and shaped by war."

Sunday Morning Michael Dale:  Selling More Than The Sizzle
Sarah Shin (Photo: Toby Tenenbaum)

I never gave much thought to SPAM when I was a kid. I was raised on school day lunches of Oscar Mayer Bologna sandwiches with mustard on Wonder Bread Classic White. But while in my 20s, during my first time visiting Hawaii, I was surprised and intrigued to see that in this state of primarily Asian Pacific and native Hawaiian culture, SPAM, which I regarded mainly as a Monty Python punchline, was on nearly every restaurant menu and considered an important part of the local cuisine.

The unlikely connection between The Hormel Foods Corporation's revolutionary canned blend of pre-cooked pork shoulder and ham (Needs no refrigeration!) and the countries and islands sharing South Pacific shores is fully explained in Brooklyn-born Korean American Jaime Sunwoo's wonderfully surreal, comical and touching theatre piece, Specially Processed American Me, running through February 19th at Dixon Place (tickets are $25, seniors/students $20).

Co-directed by the author and Karim Muasher for Ping Chong and Company and Free Rein Projects, Sunwoo uses a mix of oral history, video, shadowplay and period style pop harmonies as the very engaging Sarah Shin, as a stage version of the playwright, tells the story of how SPAM, shipped to American troops as rations during World War II and the Korean conflict, became a valuable commodity in occupied lands when fresh meat was scarce.

A quartet of Hormel Girls (Vanessa Rappa, Juella Baltonado, Monica Goff and by music director Adrianna Mateo) push the product wearing military dress and wide-eyed, upturned nose masks making them resemble attractive cartoon pigs as they sing peppy melodies with acronym-forming lyrics like:

Soldier, Pack A Meaty

Snack, Perfect and Already Made.

Show People American Might.

Share Products American Made.

But unlike the soldiers, who might simply fry up the meat product or eat it straight out of the can, locals used SPAM as the starting point for their own culinary flourishes.

Blended into the fascinating world history lesson is Sunwoo's family history as she balances the comforting nostalgia of her mother's and grandmother's SPAM-based meals with the bloodshed and colonization the American product represents and the taunting she receives as a teenager from white schoolmates who regard SPAM as gross poor-people junk.

Before the Beautiful Mosaic concept came about, Americans would think of themselves as part of a Melting Pot, a mixture of different cultures that would somehow combine to mass-produce a homogenized society, much like the homogenized product invented by Hormel. In Specially Processed American Me, Jaime Sunwoo reminds us that the beauty of American diversity comes in the savoring of many different flavors.

It's been nearly thirty years since I first saw the versatile Phylicia Rashad on stage, seducing Brian Stokes Mitchell when they were replacements for Tonya Pinkins and Gregory Hines in Jelly's Last Jam. Since then, in over a dozen productions, I've seen her play Shakespearean queens (in Cymbeline and A Midsummer Night's Dream), family matriarchs penned by Tennessee Williams (Cat On A Hot Tin Roof) and Tracy Letts (August: Osage County), a centuries-old symbol of racial oppression in August Wilson's Gem Of The Ocean and an especially unforgettable turn as the title character in Michael John LaChiusa's operatic musical drama Bernarda Alba.

But I've never seen her give a performance like the one she's giving now in director Ruben Santiago-Hudson's stirring production of Dominique Morisseau excellent drama of contemporary industry, Skeleton Crew. Playing an aging auto worker putting on a tough façade while struggling through her final year before she can earn a worthy retirement package, there's a painful weariness in her voice and physicality, even when the character is demanding to be treated with dignity.

But I had to chuckle at curtain call when, now out of character, she acknowledged the audience's applause with her familiar regal bearing and glowing face of a Broadway star. A gem of the stage, indeed.

I've never been to a New Orleans jazz funeral...

but they seem like so much fun that it's a shame the dearly departed is never around to enjoy the festivities. But downtown perennial Taylor Mac places the guest of honor smack in the middle of it at HERE, with the book and lyrics for The Hang, a musical happening set after Socrates is sentenced to death for corrupting the minds of young Athenians (as if) and what transpires might be taken as a fever dream occurring before, after or during the taking of the hemlock.

Sunday Morning Michael Dale:  Selling More Than The Sizzle
Kat Edmonson, Taylor Mac and El Beh
(Photo: Maria-Baranova)

Director Niegel Smith's embracing production has Taylor Mac playing Socrates as a sort of psychedelic guru, blasted with color, as is nearly everyone/everything else on stage, by designer Machine Dazzle. The great philosopher instructs his mourning disciples to muss on the meaning of virtue, and they respond with joyous performances of selections from composer Matt Ray's frisky jazz/blues score, played by a hot ensemble of charismatic soloists.

Anachronisms abound (Spoilers: Socrates never attended a jazz funeral and Plato never wore a typewriter around his neck) but anyone searching for functioning dramaturgy in this one would be better off kicking back and allowing their mind to be corrupted.

They're singing Happy Birthday...

Two days ago would have been Jonathan Larson's 62/22 Birthday and I was thinking how his storytelling characters in both Rent and tick, tick... BOOM!, though immersed in the poor artist lifestyle, has a way to something more lucrative if he'll accept it. When I was trying to be an actor in my 20s and 30s, I did a lot of corporate temp work and was often asked if I was interested in a permanent position, something I always turned down until I got an offer from a non-profit that didn't expect me to work beyond traditional hours, allowing me to exercise my creative muscles on evenings and weekends. But when new leadership expected me to make a full-time career out of it, I found myself unemployed because I didn't want to give up doing unpaid free theatre in community gardens with my friends. So I guess that's my emotional connection to Jonathan Larson's musicals. Hey, what a way to spend your evenings and weekends.

Curtain Line...

"Tennessee Williams may be a fine playwright but that's a terrible place to keep a cat." -- Gracie Allen



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