by Lynn on November 9, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer

At Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace, Toronto, Ont.

Written, composed and performed by Janice Jo Lee

Directed by Matt White

Set and costumes by Julia Kim

Lighting by Paul Cegys

A skewered, jumbled, angry production about racism but it’s confusing about whose racism we are talking about. Janice Jo Lee gives a lively performance.

The Story. Janice Jo Lee plays a multitude of characters in this one person show. Mainly she plays she/her, a woman of Korean descent who lives in Kitchener and doesn’t seem to like it. She has not been lucky in love. Every man with whom she’s had a relationship has been ended badly and each man has been white. This has soured her on white people but she wants to submerge herself into that world but without the baggage of her ethnicity. She conjures a professor who has a system for purging a person of their roadblocks to blend in. There are her friends, also of Korean descent, who have their own issues with white people who try to help, but seem only to add to the invective.

 The Production. Julia Kim has created a set with vibrant props of an easel with flip sheets indicating the professor’s strategy, charts and pyramid formations of action. The professor (a man) wears a pair of glasses with adjustable prongs that either go up or down on the side of the head. He holds a pointer and hits the item on the page explaining at quick speed the various headings of his sequence, each heading is more esoteric than the last. She/her speaks so quickly and often slurs the words as the professor and others it’s hard to understand what is being said.

She/her is upset that white people eat Korean food but don’t take the time to learn how to pronounce it properly. Kimchi is a case in point. She/her explains how white people get the pronunciation wrong. She pronounces it correctly but says they still get it wrong and that one time is the last time she tries to correct their error.

She/her invites a man (white) to come up on stage and engage with her in a scene. A smiling, enthusiastic man eagerly bounds on stage. He stands next to her, smiling. She asks his name. He says, “Davenport.” She says she’ll call him “Mike.” (Huh? I’m thinking?) Davenport then sits down and she/her continues referring to Mike as her new boyfriend to her friends. As with the other men in her life, this relationship fails. She/her reverts to her negative thoughts about whites.

In her program note Janice Jo Lee says that Will You Be My Friend is a satire. I had been wondering a satire of what. Then I twig: it must be a satire of racism but from a person of colour’s point of view. How else to explain her invective aimed at white people not knowing how to pronounce the names of  Korean foods and then completely ignoring a man’s (white)  name when he tells it to you with grace and good will? That must be it because this skewered look at perceived white privilege and racism is coming from a character so clenched with rage at these people she can’t seem to see straight.

Then towards the end of her show she/her? Janice Jo Lee? drops the pretense of doing a satiric show and charges into full on lecture/hector  on racism. She says with firmness: “Matt, lock the doors.” (Thus ordering her director to lock the doors. No sound is heard of any doors locking which must have been a relief to the people who were there for what is billed as a ‘relaxed performance’ when people who need to can come and go as they pleased. We were told at the beginning that as a “relaxed performance” the lights would be up a bit so people could come and go safely. Actually this didn’t happen. The lights were down in the house and only up on stage, making it tricky for the two people who did need to leave and come back mid-show, to do so safely.) This lecture/rant went on for several minutes and then reverted to the ‘comedy’ aspect of the show. At several points in the show Janice Jo Lee played various instruments, ‘sang’ and recited poetry.

Janice Jo Lee plays all the characters, sometimes having a conversation with another character at the same time. Director Matt White has Lee racing around the stage; climbing onto and off various props of differing levels; Lee races up the side stairs and even plays a scene on the upper level of the theatre. Very energetic.

 Comment. Yes indeed, Will You Be My Friend, is loaded with racism, narrow-minded ideas about race and skin colour, but the racism is of the lead character, she/her and not of any white person.  We never actually see the men (white) who have seemingly treated she/her badly and then left her. We are not given a credible reason why they left. Perhaps it’s her behaviour that’s made them leave.  We only have her word for it. That leaves us with a weak argument for the reason, purpose, point of the show. She/her has said that she feels inadequate and ‘other’ in a way in the presence of a white person and they are the cause. That’s like me saying: “I’m overweight and you are slim and fit and I feel inadequate and insecure in your presence and it’s your fault.” Uh, I don’t think so.

So many areas of this show should be re-thought. At 110 minutes it’s 30 minutes too long. Much as Janice Jo Lee is celebrated for her spoken word abilities, all the music, songs etc. should be cut. They don’t add to the thesis.  The whole idea of whose racism is being dealt with here is at issue. In his program note director Matt White approached Janice Jo Lee with an offer to help her with her show. Apparently she was aghast at such a suggestion, saying that he was white and since her protagonist was white how could he think of helping. Mr. White is a gracious man and asked her to trust him to see if their collaboration would work. Since he’s listed as the director, I guess he won her trust. What are the rest of us to make of such an endeavor? After all who does Ms Lee think the majority of her audience is? I think Ms Lee should clarify who/what is being satirized because it’s not clear. What’s with the rant of “Matt lock the doors?” Who is giving the rant and why–the character? The writer/performer? Clarify. Focus. Tighten.

The show is called Will You Be My Friend. My answer is “no.”

Green Light Arts Productions with the support of Theatre Passe Muraille

Began: Oct. 25, 2018.

Closes: Nov. 11, 2018.

Running Time: 110 minutes.

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