Friday, December 2, 2011

How My Grandmother, B.D. Wong and a Leaky Bathroom Inspired BIG FLOWER EATER

My grandmother (left) in the 1950s.
My grandmother on my father’s side was a character to say the least. In photographs, she has the most relaxed body language I have ever seen in a woman who grew up in the 1910s and 1920s. She leans and lounges, hips curving to one side, in a rather lascivious way, looking strangely emancipated and not of her time. I remember realizing that she was rather unusual when she came to visit us in the States in the 1970s. Our two bonding conversations were about 1) Tarot reading and astrology, which fascinated her for being Western ways of fortunetelling that she didn't  know about; and 2) those shiny leggings that were new at that time. They only came in electric blue or hot pink, and we both coveted the electric blue ones.

When I got to be a teenager, I wanted the room she stayed in when she visited us since it had its own separate entrance. So I cleaned it out, discovering three empty, dusty, sweet vermouth bottles under the bed. Then I found a box of photos, and among all the black and white pictures, there was a mysterious woven orange pouch. Inside, I found several gorgeous red pieces of paper with Chinese writing, a few featuring lovely brushwork, all of them with some sort of wheel at the bottom. When I showed them to my mom, she made a noise of disgust and said (in effect), “Oy. Fortunetelling.”

Being completely prosaic, my mother had no interest in enlightening me, no matter how much I pestered her. The only thing I could read on those fortunes were family names, so I surmised that my grandmother must have had these fortunes cast for members of the family. There was one with my brother’s name, one with my father’s name and one with my name – the only name in ballpoint pen, like an afterthought. There were five others I could not decipher at all.

I kept the box of photos and the fortunes, but after putting everything away, I forgot all about the fortunes until many years later, when I was redecorating my old apartment on 11th Street. Inspired by someone else’s bathroom, I bought a gallon of red paint and my boyfriend at the time was helping me transform my Lower East Side loo from rundown and humdrum, to what I hoped would be fiery chic. As I was moving stuff around in the living room, I found that box of old photos and opening it, I rediscovered my grandmother’s woven pouch.

A similar fortune, but for a betrothal.
“Look at these,” I said, carefully unfolding one to show my boyfriend as he continued to work.

He had never seen anything like it before and exclaimed, “You should hang them up!”

Then I remembered reading in some magazine, maybe when I was getting my nails done, some article about B.D. Wong tiling his bathroom with his aunt’s vintage mahjongg tiles. 

“Hey,” I queried my boyfriend, holding the fortune up against the bright red bathroom wall, “What do you think about me hanging these fortunes here?”

“Great idea,” he replied and plucking the fortune from my hands, he stuck them on the still-wet paint. Thwak. 

Well, that’s not quite what I envisioned, my inner critic thought, but then the inner critic of my inner critic chimed in and told me to stop being so uptight and to relax. So we pasted all the fortunes on the wall. 

Needless to say, my mother nearly fainted the next time she came over and used the bathroom. I swear she shrieked and came barreling out of the bathroom scolding me for doing such a thing. For the next year, anytime she came by and had to use the bathroom, I could hear a steady stream of Taiwanese muttering.

Then after a few months of enjoying a refurbished bathroom, it began to leak. No one could figure out where the leak was coming from. The toilet of the apartment upstairs? The bathtub? Workmen traipsed in and out, three or four times, to no avail. Not that they were the brightest, but really, it was mysterious and annoying.

Worse, the fortunes were getting soaked. And there was no way to remove them. I watched with dismay, as the fortune that my grandmother cast for me became an illegible blur around the blue ink of my name, which remained sharp and took on an accusatory tone. I refrained from doing anything to the bathroom, wanting to preserve what I could of the fortunes. Eventually, it finally leaked so much, the entire ceiling came down.

The workmen came and put in a new ceiling. Only two of the fortunes were not wet and ruined. Thankfully, they happened to be the oldest, with the most interesting brush calligraphy. I had a new boyfriend by then, who helped me cut them from the wall. I took photographs of the soaked fortunes so that perhaps someone could help me read some of them in the future. Then we covered up the old fortunes with a fresh coat of turquoise paint.

My grandmother in the 1930s
I framed those two remaining fortunes and hung them up, first in the living room and then in the hall. They were there when I was evicted last January. But I don’t know where they went since. I haven’t been able to find them in my possessions.

When the bathroom started to leak, I joked that my mother was right: my grandmother had been upset that I pasted her fortunes in the bathroom. I imagined the dead relatives referred to in those fortunes lounging in the bathtub, wondering what they were doing in the Lower East Side. BIG FLOWER EATER is basically a giant riff on this joke, which really might not be a joke. 

I originally started it because a friend encouraged me to write a one-woman play, but I realized that I don’t really like one-person plays and I would be terribly uncomfortable in one. BIG FLOWER EATER will therefore feature three actresses, each of whom will play a young woman and her grandmother. It will be my first time devising a play and I’m excited to work with Kim Chinh and Helen Kim, both of whom have improvisation skills and writing experience. We’ll be using some exercises from Theatre de Complicite and several Guest Directors will be part of the collaborative process, as will James Daher, whose video work some of you may remember from the Direct Arts World’s Fair. We’ll be recording and reporting on each day of the workshop and we’d welcome comments from everyone. 

Like most of my work, BIG FLOWER EATER will examine how the past and present are connected, bringing to light something of the past that has been buried or forgotten. But I am also interested in ritual and its importance. As well as ways spirits can be presented on stage. Video, of course, can easily project transparent ghostlike images, but I’d also like to explore different avenues like shadows, glass, mirrors and aerial work. Ultimately, I’d love to play with a Pepper’s Ghost effect. 

But for this workshop, we’ll start with video, story, ritual, and an inimitable performance by traditional Korean drummer Vongku Pak. Fitting actually, that having been inspired by a red bathroom, the play will be developed in the Red Room. I hope you’ll follow this blog over the next few weeks as we delve into this theatrical experiment and come see the fruits of our labor December 7-10! 

-- By Victoria Linchong

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