It’s not every day you see a black man in blackface painting his face white.
Ja Shia’s “Pacific Overtures” is a scattered collage of enthusiastic musical numbers set against a confusing cultural message board. The musical, written by Stephen Sondheim, outlines the western cultural invasion of Japan in the middle of the 19th century. Shia’s production attempts to highlight the conflict of traditions in Sondheim’s texts, using the vaudeville style of blackface and an ethnically diverse cast to do so. The performance is entertaining and energetic, but falls slightly short of the profundity for which it aspires.
Sondheim’s music speaks for itself, and the production coped effectively with the limited set possibilities on the Jonathan Edwards dining hall. The “orchestra” — which was entirely piano — was placed behind the audience and only occasionally drowned out the singers. On stage, the set consists of three stands depicting various flags, which change throughout the performance to represent the shifting cultural tides that wash over Japan.
The cast does an inconsistent job with Sondheim’s stirring score. Ensemble numbers are always successful, notably “Please Hello,” where cultural ambassadors invaded Japan with their own traditions and demands. “Someone in a Tree” and “Welcome to Kanagawa” are also highlights, well sung and choreographed. “Poems,” a song where Michael Lew ’03 and Kenneth Dean ’03 serenade each other as they travel, falls flat as the actors’ voices do not have the skill to carry their solos.
Although all actors performed with enough energy to fill the expansive dining hall, certain performances stood out. Allison Waggener ’03 was brilliant in her various roles, with a voice that outshone the others and a presence that gave an air of professional theater whenever she was on stage. Nnenna Okwu ’04 was also strong in her characters and her singing, and senior Rhone Fraser’s voice was captivating.
Shia’s adaptation of the finale “NEXT!!” falls short of its ambitions to answer to the questions of cultural heritage that the play puts forth. Actors step forward to declare Japanese dominance in the modern world, citing “Pokemon” and “Playstation II” as justifications for the 19th century selling-out of Japan’s cultural identity. This comes off as cheesy and a little embarrassing, and is an inappropriate close for an otherwise intelligently presented play.
A word should be said about the use of blackface and yellowface in this production. Although it did not hinder the success of the show, it was an unnecessary eyesore. Shia explains his use of the vaudeville device as an examination of contemporary issues of race, but the parallel was not drawn effectively beyond the smearing of paint on the faces of Lew and Dean. The attempt at profundity here falls short and should have been left out of the play, which stands on its own as a strong statement about cultural identity. During “Hello Please,” ethnically stereotyped emissaries from different countries are trotted out and laughed at, and this is inconsistent with the serious consideration that is necessary to pull off the use of blackface.
The show is energetic and nearly moving at points, and the cast does a good job of struggling against insufficient numbers and acoustics. It would be better without Shia’s attempts to deepen the inherent cultural message, but it still is an entertaining evening.
Friday and Saturday at 9 p.m.
JE Dining Hall
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