If China were a person, who would it be? That’s not one of those dumb personality quizzes: the question is central to Made in China, a new musical by Wakka Wakka that is timely viewing in our current Chiiinaa-bashing context. But don’t expect a diatribe against the world’s manufacturing dragon; Made in China is a puppet story, and, with that fantasy as a lens, a delightfully savage satire of the way Americans willfully ignore the complexities of China while benefiting from its repressive policies and mass production chain. The creators clearly believe that cultural bias typically doesn’t stand up to direct confrontation, so Made in China revels in provoking those conflicts and, with a scatological bent and a cussing anti-heroine, has naughty fun watching them play out.
Gwendolyn Warnock and Kirjan Waage, who co-wrote and co-direct, and Yan Li, who wrote the music and lyrics, have imagined what would happen if the eyes of an ordinary American consumer opened to the truth of where all her stuff is made, and at what cost. This happens when lonely, rudderless, middle-aged Mary discovers in her newly purchased Christmas lights, a letter from a Chinese worker begging for help. His message-in-a-bottle will become the impetus for a fantastical journey down the rabbit hole, or, because Mary is a bit of a shit herself, down the toilet pipe.
But though the worker’s situation sets the play in motion and transfers it to China, Warnock and Waage are more interested in turning attention – Mary’s and ours – to a Chinese man right under Mary’s nose: her next-door neighbor. Mr. Wang, or Eddie to friends, is a cultured, reserved single gentleman Mary’s own age whose home she can look straight into from her own window (and frequently does). Wang has his own problems, of a very serious nature and not unrelated to the worker’s, as we’ll learn, and he’s not impressed by Mary’s typically American “pity-party” so they aren’t natural friends.
As voiced by Peter Russo and Ariel Estrada, respectively, Mary and Eddie will flesh out their differences (in a literal sense, too: these are anatomically correct puppets with attitude and hormones to spare). Mary’s opening song, “This is Me,” which she sings in a quavering alto while wiping herself on the toilet, oozes bathos: “This is me/Looking like a wreck/What’s that on my neck?!/I hope that it’s not cancer!/But in my head, I’m far far away/With skin as soft as cotton/Boobs that don’t look rotten/But not today… “
Eddie sings instead of hard work and the struggles of the immigrant. Mary will respond with “I Gotta Get That,” a frenetic celebration of American consumerism. But it is her purchases that have the last word, leading a mini Communist revolution in her own home (imagine Sesame Street directed by Chairman Mao where plungers and lightbulbs unite as comrades under the hammer and sickle). Li’s lyrics hit the bullseye every time.
There are plenty of clichés about China here; the pleasure is in watching them get sent up like Chinese firecrackers. Some are obvious: American businessmen in China are parodied in the form of a Mr. Dick Mills with his Madam Millions; Beijing is swamped in pollution, and so on. Others require greater attention; for example, the Beijing artist-activist Ai Weiwei preaches freedom in an ironic puppet cameo that pokes fun at his “Sunflower Seeds” Tate Modern show. Tiger Cai’s video fills in the requisite Communist propaganda in “Every Fifteen Seconds,” both a rousing and a deflating celebration of Chinese construction and manufacturing by and for the people (“no social classes, just passionate masses!”).
Nevertheless, the story is structured like a Chinese opera celebrating the exploits of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, with fantastical voyages, a period of imprisonment, and magical escapes. The ensemble also borrows musical motifs from the genre and a dragon dance, all of which serve to ground the show in the Chinese culture it seeks to examine, which in turn lends its observations greater weight.
The other pleasure here is watching the ensemble at work: eight puppeteers plus the Norwegian Minensemblet performing live. The puppetry is inspired by Bunraku rather than traditional Chinese forms of the genre; black clothed handlers directly manipulate the puppets (designed by Waage) with their hands, and prove skilled at giving Mary and Eddie a charming humanity through their precise gestures, which allows their story to succeed as the show’s emotional center.
I saw this show the day after the death of Zhou Youguang, the inventor of pinyin. It’s not an overstatement to say his system of converting Chinese characters into the Roman alphabet revolutionized relations between China and the West, by helping both sides learn each other’s language. Mary and Eddie can speak each other’s emotional language by the end of Made in China, and the huge, multicultural team behind the show is another example of what can be learned and created when we cross bridges towards each other, rather than construct walls. Identity is no longer singular in this globalized world, and China is no longer a far-off concept, but part of us all.