Talking points: Rebecca Isabel Fuentes and Lino T. Ariloka share personal insights during Syracuse Stage’s Tales from the Salt City. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTO
Starting in 1992, Chong has averaged 2.3 Undesirable Elements
shows each year, allowing him to develop a reliable template on how to
proceed. In the Netherlands, for example, he spent no time with civic
boasting about the great Dutch painters of the 17th century or the posh
jewelry exchange but focused instead on Third World immigrants who
struggled to fit into an old society. In Charleston, S.C., he gave
voice to the excluded descendants of former slaves, and in Minneapolis
he connected with Native Americans who came off the plains. Everywhere
he goes there is an unnamed force that finds minorities and newcomers
“undesirable.” Chong wastes no time with them, but we know going in
that Pat Buchanan, Lou Dobbs and Tom Tancredo would head the list.
Of the seven presenters, two were born
in Central New York: African-American Albert Marshall and Jeanne
Shenandoah of the Onondaga Nation. Three are economic migrants seeking
a better life: Gordana Dudevski from Macedonia, Jose Miguel Hernandez
from Cuba and Rebecca Isabelle Fuentes, born in the United States but
raised in Tijuana, Mexico. And two fled political oppression: Lino T.
Ariloka from chaotic Sudan and Emad Rahim, whose father was murdered in
Cambodia’s Killing Fields. The job of rounding up the best voices was
given largely to Syracuse Stage dramaturg Kyle Bass.
Some of the seven appear to have emerged
through casting calls and auditions, but at least four of them are
anything but random. Shenandoah works in the Onondaga Nation
Communications Office. The Liberty Deli, where Dudevski is employed, is
kitty-corner from Syracuse Stage’s Archbold Theater. There are also
more direct links to live theater. Rahim’s wife Cjala Surratt was long
employed by the Redhouse; she’s now managing director at the Community
Folk Art Center. Hernandez is a theater dance instructor for the
Spanish Action League. And Marshall is a much-beloved community theater
actor (Annie for Theatre ‘90, Pill Hill for Salt City Center) who can hold his own with professional performers (Our Lady of 121st Street at the Redhouse), as well as being a steel worker and union official.
A few minutes into Tales we see
that director Chong has seized upon Rahim’s hyper-articulateness and
Marshall’s infectious good humor to dynamic effect. Hernandez can wring
laughs from the slightest lines.
If Tales from the Salt City is
theater of exposition, the stories told are all worth hearing, no
matter how they’re told. Dudevski’s first kiss, Rahim’s rebellion
against a sadistic stepfather, Hernandez winning the lottery, Fuentes
as an M.P. in the Army, and Ariloka’s rediscovery of his presumed dead
family would hold your interest if you heard them while waiting for a
Surprisingly, when one considers that
the seven are supposed to be “undesirable,” most sound almost like
Syracuse boosters. Marshall says emphatically that he loves the place:
“I’ve never been anywhere where the water tastes better.” Only
Shenandoah speaks of grievance, remembering racial discrimination in
the Lafayette Public Schools and the industrial degradation of Onondaga
Lake, long sacred to the Nation.
None of the five who moved here saw
Syracuse as an ideal destination, an Oz or El Dorado, and chose us
through chance or happenstance. But once here, they moved right in,
apparently in contrast to what on-line reviews of Chong’s shows tell us
he found elsewhere. All are gainfully employed.
Chong and his team began with an immense
amount of information, which has been edited and polished. New York
City-based Chong is the head of his own company and the recipient of
many grants; his time here was kept to a minimum. Much of the grunt
work of reducing elements of seven lives to 100 minutes fell to Sara
Michelle Zatz. She also interweaves narratives over the strict
chronological frame so that even though we hear all the voices within
any five-minute slot, we learn more about Shenandoah, 63, and Marshall,
58, before we get to Ariloka, 31. On opening night Chong generously
asked Zatz to join him on the stage in answer to the calls for “Author!
Musical metaphors quickly enter any discussion of Chong’s work. He describes Tales
as a “seated opera for the spoken word” and a “chamber piece.” In some
instances there are songs, of which the most arresting comes from
Sudan’s Ariloka, accompanied with a ratcheted gourd. “Musical,” here,
is to be understood in a broader sense, emphasizing the rhythmic. We
get the first pieces of information in bite-size morsels, until we get
a good grip on each of the seven. When we do we understand when words
from one speaker are delivered by another, as when the pleas of a
threatened Mexican migrant are spoken by fair-skinned Dudevski.
We never hear a monotone, partially
through the skilled efforts of sound designer Jonathan R. Herter. From
the very beginning, recitations are punctuated with rapid group
hand-clapping, noisy fillips that call us to attention and also signal
transitions, one for a slight shift and up to five for segues over
continents or years. These are fun at first and apparently hark to
Chong’s roots as a performance artist. After an hour, though, the
hand-clapping along with the voice-of-doom announcements of each
passing year—1999! 2000! 2001!–—begin to sound like a leaden Norman
Corwin documentary from the golden age of network radio.
For a show with Salt City in the
title, local allusions are rather thin: Marshall once paid 35 cents to
get into the Westcott Theater; Ariloka saw his first snow here;
Dudevski was overwhelmed by her first visit to Wegmans; Rahim once sold
drugs at Fowler High School; and we still have anxiety over the
Onondaga land claim. Screen projection designer Maya Ciarrocchi give us
shots of historical Syracuse, like when steaming choo-choos darkened
downtown streets. Many of the stories, however, could just as easily
have taken place in Rochester, Albany or Podunk. But they are our
folks. They make us laugh, and they touch our hearts. And their
monologues reassure us about their place in our world.
This production runs through Nov. 2. See Times Table for information.