I Almost Never Use the Word "Groundbreaking," but I'm Using It Now: "Krunk Fu Battle Battle" at East West Players

This post may get me in a bit of hot water because, when I've talked smack about the Los Angeles Times before, the forces of darkness have come after me. But, hey, a boy's gotta do what a boy's gotta do.

First thing's first. Krunk Fu Battle Battle, which is currently enjoying its world premiere run at East West Players in Los Angeles, is the first Asian-American hip-hop musical—with book by Qui Nguyen, lyrics by Beau Sia, vocal music by Marc Macalintal, and dance music provided by Rynan Paguio and Jason Tyler Chong. Performed by a crazy-talented cast of veteran actors and nimble newcomers, Krunk Fu is also perhaps the most energetic and loudest show ever staged by the 45-year-old company.

The visually stunning B-boy choreography by Jason Tyler Chong challenges the actor-singer-dancers to bust moves that are incredible feats of the human body—stunt work in the name of dance—and everybody's more than game. (I myself can barely not trip over myself and onto my ass when I play Dance Central on my XBOX Kinect, so what these people do amazes me to the point where I have to convince myself that what they're doing is real and that I'm not just dreaming it—and, by the way, I've already seen the show twice.)

The dance numbers (blending old-school breaking and new-school hip-hop) and music numbers (blending rap, R&B, and traditional musical-theatre ballads) are framed by the story of an Asian-American high school student who dance-battles the best B-Boys in Brooklyn's Chinatown for control of the campus and for the heart of a girl. Under the direction of Tim Dang (who knows his way around a Sondheim musical, but embraces a surprising and fresh vision here), the entire production is infused with the spirit of hip-hop—from the colorful set to the highly stylized, animated performances that evoke contemporary, urban commedia dell'arte. (I mean, is there such a thing?!)

Krunk Fu is anchored by irresistibly charming performances from lead actor Lawrence Kao and Blas Lorenzo as his mentor; a comic tour de force by Matt Tayao; the powerful, reaching-to-the-back-of-the-house pipes of Joan Almedilla; the delightfully showboating acrobatics of the lead villain played by Leng Phe; and muscular acting, singing, and dancing support from Cesar Cipriano, Liza B. Domingo, Evan Moua, Megumi Tatsumikawa, and Troy Terashita.

Okay. Is it time for me to get in trouble yet? Here we go....

While the Los Angeles Times review of Krunk Fu Battle Battle is mostly positive and acknowledges the dance numbers, the cast, and the director, reviewer Charlotte Stoudt takes a quick swipe at the show by calling it "after-school special material"—which goes to show you the sometimes willing naivete of white intelligentsia. It's right that reviewers consider plays in a larger context—but simply using the lens of the broad "American theatre" to view a show like Krunk Fu does a disservice to her readers and suggests that she is unable (or unwilling?) to understand the context in which a show like Krunk Fu has come to be.

After-school specials are typically didactic TV programs for children and teenagers that tackle social issues and hit audiences over the head with messages. While the underdogs in Krunk Fu Battle Battle stand up for themselves in the end and make nice with the bad guys, that's not the message. That's not what this play is doing. I'm reminded of Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio's memorable line in the James Cameron movie, The Abyss: "You have to look with better eyes than that!"

Yes, the almost counterintuitive melding of traditional musical theatre, hip-hop culture, and Asian America can rightly be called "groundbreaking," but there's so much more happening here.

As Asian Americans continue to make progress in terms of positive representation in the mainstream media, Asian-American males have always been behind the curve. In my play, Model Citizens (which was Runner-Up for a National Play Award in 2000), an Asian-American character succinctly states his biggest social gripe: "The feminization of my entire culture, especially in the mainstream media.... As in, Asian American women and men—and men—are overly feminized. Our women become girls, and our men become emasculated." While a lot has changed since I wrote those lines more than a decade ago, Asian men are still struggling (rightly or wrongly so) with their place in this culture, as evidenced by the unusually epic essay, "Paper Tigers," by Wesley Yang in a recent issue of New York magazine. (Honestly, I still haven't read the whole thing—I mean, this?! Again?! Still?!)

Given this information—this necessary context—to see a stage full of hot, masculine Asian-American men aggressively asserting their sexuality through the art of dance (seriously, people, these guys are so scorching hot I ALMOST WENT OUT OF MY FREAKING MIND) in a show that's running for seven weeks in a 240-seat theater in a major metropolitan city is groundbreaking. No matter that it's an ethnic-specific theatre company—the fact that it's happening anywhere at all is pretty amazing. Sure, we've seen Asian-American men wow the masses on America's Best Dance Crew on TV, but with Krunk Fu at EWP we're in complete control of our own "story" and we call the shots on how our history is shaped and redefined. See the difference? (By the way, not to worry, potential straight male and lesbian audience members—there's plenty of B-girl and MILF eye candy to go around.)

You know what else is groundbreaking? Seeing Asian Americans populate a story about high school kids. Our collective vision of the teen genre—be it in theatre, TV, or film (but especially film)—is saturated with Caucasians. I mean, hell, the most memorable Asian face in a high school story in any medium is Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles. Krunk Fu Battle Battle presents male characters on the other end of the spectrum. Yeah, you won't see this on television or at the movies any time soon.

You know what else you won't see? A remarkably pan-Asian cast: B-boys of Cambodian, Chinese, Filipino, Hmong, and Japanese descent bounce around stage—some of whom are actual B-boys who had to receive vigorous acting training to convincingly play their roles (which they do!).

Finally, I have to ask: was the "after-school special" comment written because Krunk Fu Battle Battle dares not to be yet another play about "white people problems"? Or because the show aims for a specific audience of middle- and working-class minorities, as well as young urban non-theatregoers who need to be eased into a new form? I mean, after all, the show's book writer, Qui Nguyen, is the co-artistic director and co-founder of the Obie Award-winning Vampire Cowboys in New York, a company whose audience demographic is the exact young demographic that theatres around the nation are begging for, form committees to get.

Okay, while I'm at it, I'm going to wag my finger at Charlotte Stoudt's last review of an East West Players production, namely Paul Kikuchi's Wrinkles—because it's relevant to what I'm discussing here. Again, her review is mostly positive, pointing out how funny the play is, but she undercuts it by comparing it to a "sitcom" and calling it "a TV pilot on stage." Some may take that as a compliment, but when it comes from theatre critics? Nope. It's a dig. It's always been a dig, and it always will be a dig.

Yet again, though, she ignores the context, the history. (Are you detecting a pattern here?)

East West Players, the nation's premiere Asian-American theatre company and the longest-running theatre of color in the United States, was founded by Mako and friends 45 years ago, not as alternative to mainstream theatres—EWP was formed as a reaction to the way Asian-American actors were stereotyped in film and on TV.

All this is to say that, even if Wrinkles truly embraced sitcom form, that's the goddamn point. On television, Asian Americans had one season of Margaret Cho's All-American Girl in 1994-1995, and that's it. In the entire history of television, that's it! We had one program that could truly be considered "Asian American." (NBC's Outsourced doesn't really count—it's got a white lead, and to think that the South Asian media-representation struggle and the Asian Pacific struggle is the same is a bit naive.) So what I'm saying is, I'm surprised there aren't more Asian-American sitcoms on stage. There should be Asian-American sitcoms on stage all the time, 24 hours a days, 365 days a year! (And this point here parallels the point of Krunk Fu taking ownership of a high school comedy. This is the John Hughes movie we never had. Except it's on stage—perhaps elsewhere later...? By the way, don't mistake what I'm saying. This production isn't a play longing to be a film. It's smartly and highly theatrical, a live performance that can't be experienced in any other way. Form and content are two different things.)

All right. My work is done here. Go see Krunk Fu Battle Battle.

Krunk Fu Battle Battle runs through June 26, 2011, at East West Players in Los Angeles.

For those of you on a tight budget, go with a group to get a discount. Or check for cheap tickets on Goldstar and LA Stage Alliance. Or call the theater about its rush-ticket policy or usher one night and see the show for free. You see? I really want you to see this thing.

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