Fill in the blank: If it hadn’t been for __________, I wouldn’t be here now. It sounds like one of those cute devices for jump-starting dinner-party conversation or freshman English assignments. But in the context of Ping Chong’s series of documentary theater pieces built out of the performers’ own migration stories, it’s a pivotal, penetrating idea. The answers immerse each speaker—and by implication all of us—in the complicated material circumstances called history.
Early in Secret History, Chong’s latest installment in an eight-year project during which he’s worked with groups all over the country, Hiromi Sakamoto tells how “my father is accepted by Hiroshima University in 1945. It is his dream to study literature there, but instead he majors in science and math at a university in Osaka to postpone his military duty.” Sakamoto goes on to say, without a trace of pathos, that if his father had gone to Hiroshima, “I wouldn’t be here now.” The line comes up again when another of the six performers, Tania Salmen, describes how one day in 1975, when she was 12, she left the secure, windowless foyer of her family’s apartment in Beirut to go to the bathroom down the hall. If she’d chosen the apartment’s other bathroom, where bombs soon hit . . .
Removing these tales from the crisp, multivocal, 90-minute performance may make them sound melodramatic, but that’s hardly their function in the script that Chong has assembled out of the anecdotes, songs, folklore, and data that performers brought to his workshops. Rather, these harrowing accounts help establish a tacit but telling tension—the piece’s dramatic heart, really between narratives of the past and the theatricality of the present. That the performers are here now—not only in New York, but on the stage before us—places them, and us, in a special relation to their true stories.
In addition to Sakamoto and Salmen, the group includes a woman who grew up in the Philippines, a man from Uganda who came to New York to pursue an acting career, a woman from Tonga whose family moved to Utah when she was a child, and a 19-year-old student with a Chinese father and Filipina mother, trying to figure out where she belongs.
That issue, of course, is central to all of them, even if she’s the only one to state it baldly. Indeed, one of the pleasures of the piece is its smashing of stereotypes and its disdain for essentialism. When applying for college, Salmen, who was born in Venezuela of Lebanese parents and lived much of her childhood in Beirut, is instructed to check the box marked “Hispanic.”
Still, the most engaging secrets in Secret History are the less personal—those more about the huge events that form the backdrops of human lives and often produce the impetuses for people’s most momentous decisions, such as choosing to leave one’s homeland. Proceeding chronologically from the mid 19th century, the six intersecting narratives set family and individual experiences amid the turmoil of wars, colonial rules, corrupt despots, economic deprivation, and traditional customs. (Once the speakers get to America, much of the sociopolitical context gets dropped, unfortunately.)
Such complicated experiences typically remain undisclosed despite our ultra-confessional, self-obsessed culture. Secret History reveals them, and in doing so, shoves us out of our national position as judgmental yet titillated voyeurs. There’s no Oprah-esque gut-spilling here, and the performers—few of them trained actors—are straightforward and unsentimental. What’s at issue, then, in the multi-autobiographical drama isn’t the therapized self-revelation common to the worst how-I-found-myself performance art. Rather, it’s the question of how one engages life as a subject in history.
The sincerity of this question gives the piece its authenticity. Indeed, that matters more than the obvious fact that the performers here represent themselves—unlike, say, the self-aggrandizing actors impersonating real folks in The Laramie Project. After all, Chong’s elegantly formal staging—a half-moon floor covered with sand, the company sitting in folding chairs and occasionally carrying out a bit of abstract choreography—emphasizes the crafted and selected nature of each story. Six selves are absolutely present, but also distanced by conscious dramatic shaping. We see the cast members engaged in the process of self-invention, which is another way of saying, we see how American they are.