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Of the gifts I never expected to receive from the visionary artist Ping Chong, the top one would be this: the very best reason for resisting the current administration. If you don’t have strong views either way on immigration, or are vaguely inclined to let the Liar-in-Chief’s verbal abuse of entire global regions pass as merely more of his usual baseless ranting, Undesirable Elements: Generation NYZ, this weekend ending its too-brief run at the Duke on 42nd Street, would make you think more sharply about the actual effects of the Orange Narcissist’s prejudices — and the actual people on whom those effects are visited.
Undesirable Elements introduces seven such people, seated in a semicircle before music stands on the Duke’s otherwise bare stage. Conceived by Chong, the production has been created for Ping Chong + Company by Sara Zatz and Kirya Traber, its text written by them in collaboration with the seven performers, the eldest of whom was born in 1995. They are not professional actors, though a few of them have aspirations in that direction. All they have in common is that they, or their parents, came here from elsewhere — Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Pakistan, Mexico, the former Yugoslavia — and that they are now, passionately and determinedly, native New Yorkers. By which phrase, as everybody knows, I mean people who came here to be a part of it, and have no intention of leaving.
Chong has made a series of pieces with “Undesirable Elements” in their titles, exploring how people of varied ethnic and national origins cope with the crazy congeries that is America; this new piece marks the 25th-anniversary version of the format. The sense of alienation, the dialectic of difference and conformity, has been a recurring theme in Chong’s pieces. He has employed a wide array of artistic techniques: dance, image theater, video, puppetry. The new piece is almost entirely bare of such decorative enhancements. Except for a few brief moments of ritualized movement, and the cheerfully uninsistent projections by Katharine Freer that decorate the back wall, the production consists solely of these seven young people telling their stories. Zatz and Traber have cunningly structured the piece to be both formally organized and easy-going — just kids on the first day at a new school, going around the room, telling the others, and us, a little bit about themselves. It holds the enchantment that hearing about any individual’s life can hold. By the end, I loved and admired them all.
Their stories are the newest version of the oldest story America owns: that of immigrants adjusting to a new land, struggling simultaneously to survive under new and harsher conditions, to learn the puzzling ways of an adopted country, and to achieve both tasks without entirely jettisoning the heritage they brought with them. The twists that our time has added to this old story are many and painful. Neither bullying in school nor police brutality is new in itself, but the age of social media has intensified them. Affordable housing has become a vastly increased challenge: One of the seven spent his high-school years living in a homeless shelter. Sexual awakening is the eternal story of adolescence, but now it carries identity questions along with increased linguistic nuances: One youngster, born female, identifies as nonbinary. And for those born elsewhere, a perplexing network of government rules and regulations suddenly brings potential terrors: One young woman is enrolled in DACA; deportation is a daily anxiety.
The New York these young people know is far from mine and likely from yours as well. Manhattan, apart from the Lower East Side, barely exists for them; theirs is the city of East New York, Far Rockaway, Flushing, and Long Island City. Nor does the sense of New York’s past hold the meaning for them that it would have held two or three generations ago. Their cultural awakening comes from the artistic revelations of the recent past: Harry Potter, Michael Jackson, Twilight, salsa. They see the world, perhaps more than previous generations have, as a set of issues they are compelled to confront, with the politicized terminology of those issues far more cleanly (and perhaps rigidly) laid out than they were for youngsters in analogous situations twenty or forty years ago. Neither they nor those who guided them through the making of the piece did that rigidifying; our whole culture has done it. Where issues once flowed into gray areas of compromise, polarizing now reigns.
Yet because they are kids — and I’m entitled to call them kids; the eldest was born half a century after me — there is still hope, possibility, ambiguity. In the face of the most distressing setbacks, they find their footing, they invent themselves, they discover goals and life pursuits, along with favorite foods and nonharmful ways to have fun. They achieve things — a dazzling feat given what they’ve been up against. “My pre-K teacher recommends anger management counseling. My parents decide to separate so that I don’t have to see them fighting anymore. I am three years old.” “My father was a lawyer in Pakistan, but he’s not licensed to practice law in the U.S., so he works two jobs at Wendy’s and 7-Eleven … Sometimes there’s not enough food on the table, so we only have yogurt and bread to eat.” “At school the other kids make fun of me. I cry and say, ‘I want my mom,’ but my mom is in jail for drugs.”
Look on that picture, and on this: Seven youngsters, smiling, serious, full of hope, eager to get on with their lives and better themselves, without forgetting who they are and where they came from. One aspires to join the FBI. Two plan to become actors. One is already a recorded hip-hop artist. One studies accounting. One speaks four languages and is learning two more. Another, fascinated by ASL, means to become an interpreter for the deaf. I am happy to know these people. My father, who came over on the boat from Lithuania at age 11, in 1922, and learned English from the Tin Pan Alley songs with which, decades later, he sang me to sleep, would have been happy to know them, too. The America I live in is proud of them. That other America, which currently rules Washington, may be less so, but we can change that. “I don’t always feel like an American,” one of the kids says, “but I do feel like a New Yorker.” In that spirit, let me introduce my new friends to you: Edwin Aguila, Monica Victoria Tatacoya Castañeda, Syl (Andrea) Egerton, Mohammad Murtaza, De-Andra Pryce, Porscha Polkahontis Rippy, and Rafael Rosario. They’re worth knowing.