Chang(e): Theater review by Diep Tran
Stepping through purple streamer curtains into the set of Chang(e), filled with hanging lanterns and a large peace sign on the floor at center stage, the setting seems more like Mardi Gras than a site where the audience will be presented with the real-life tale of a woman who self-immolates in protest of American passivism. This is not a spoiler; we learn that fact in the first five minutes of the show.
Kathy Change, the titular character, was born Kathleen Chang (hence the parenthetical letter in the title). A dancer and activist—and ex-wife to Asian-American pioneer playwright Frank Chin—she set herself on fire in 1996 on the University of Pennsylvania's quad in an act of political protest. Chang(e) attempts to uncover the woman behind the act, who turns out to be a bevy of contradictions. Change spoke up against economic inequalities and racism, but took a white lover out of economic convenience. She sprinkled marijuana on her food but could quote Scripture. She was a manic-depressive who tried to commit suicide twice, yet believed in the power of love to change the world. Change is a figure who defies easy categorization or audience sympathy.
Chang(e) doesn’t shy away from portraying the late artist’s flaws and demons, such as her needy selfishness and the ghost of her mother (Kiyoko Kashiwagi, in mostly wordless but haunting performance), who committed suicide when Change was 14. Soomi Kim is fearless as Change, simultaneously attracting and repelling the audience with her convictions, while showing a startling vulnerability during the dance sequences (Alexandra Beller provided the athletic and unfussy choreography). Kim devised the piece with director Suzi Takahashi, creating a work that is not so much a biodrama as a group of fragmented memories, with dance and video projections of Change’s words. The final sequence of self-immolation is as beautiful as it is poignant. (Machine Dazzle’s costumes range from messy-chic to a spectacular show-ending firebird worn by Kim.)
The protests bring to mind the inspiring yet vague rhetoric of Occupy Wall Street. One leaves the play with a sense of melancholy, followed by hopelessness—not anger and a desire to enact change, as Change probably would have preferred. After all, she warned us about an imminent war in Iraq, future economic collapse and a government controlled by big business, but after seeing Donald Trump host Saturday Night Live, it’s clear we still haven’t gotten the message.
HERE Arts Center (Off-Off Broadway). Co-created by Soomi Kim and Suzi Takahashi. Directed by Takahashi. With Kim, Criena House, Kiyoko Kashiwagi, David Perez-Ribada, Ben Skalski, Adriana Spencer and Zeke Stewart. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.