Friday, September 21, 2007


Without much background information, it was hard to get excited about a show called “N*gger, W*tback, Ch*nk,” (or simply “NWC” to the nice ticket lady at Krannert). It just sounds too much like smart-alecks trying to get attention for their play.

Then came a moderate-sized stink about it here locally, as a number of people found the title offensive and propagating stereotypes rather than challenging them. It is obvious that our Chief Illiniwek wounds are still pretty raw.

Nonetheless, I intentionally tried to stay away from the controversy so I could see the show without much baggage. This is course a fool’s errand – an American trying to experience a play about race without baggage.

The show was written and performed by 3 young men who met at UCLA, one black American, one Ecuadorian, and one Filipino-American (Miles Gregly, Rafael Augustin and Allan Axibal). It was essentially 3 intertwining one-person plays, each telling their own stories, with the others comparing notes on race and stereotypes as they go.

It is tricky to talk about stereotypes, and an effective way to do it is to simply talk about personal experiences. My friend Pat Gabridge wrote a great playabout race from the perspective of a white guy (Pieces of Whitey) which I think works because it draws from his personal experience as a white father of black children. In NWC, the stereotypes are much more visceral, because they apply to the performers themselves as minorities. The stories they tell are not hollywoodish moments of racial hatred against them, but examples of how labels define and confine them. They may be simple things, but they are nonetheless powerful enough to be seminal moments in their search for identity – the Filipino wanting to be Tom Cruise in grade school, the black schoolboy reading Huck Finn in a class filled with white kids, and the Latino being told not speak Spanish by his dad for fear of being deported. Even positive stereotypes are revealed as limiting, and ultimately dehumanizing, which is a message Illini Nation especially needs to hear.

And yet, somehow they manage to make it all really, really funny. For example: Who is allowed to say the N-word? Anwser: Not sure, but we know Kramer isn’t. It plays up stereotypes in ridiculous ways, so that we laugh at the stereotypes, not at the class of people the stereotypes are directed at. Then it breaks them down at the end, revealing how stereotypes are not terribly true. In one particulary poignant scene, they each talk about the positive aspects of each other's cultural groups that seem invisible to the wider culture, and that sometimes (sadly) it would be liberating to simply have a different stereotype than the particular one you are saddled with.

NWC succeeds in challenging stereotypes, despite the controversy of its title. It also gets people to talking about race, which is good. By laying bare their experiences and lives, the performers are asking us to see them as human beings, rather than as caricatures. It succeeds on-stage, and I wish it would succeed more often in life.


Debbie Reese said...

Just found your blog...

I'm tribally enrolled at a small pueblo in northern New Mexico, currently on the faculty here at UIUC, in the American Indian Studies program.

I'm posting to let your readers know a little about our program. We offer several courses in American Indian Studies, and host public lectures.

Wednesday night, Dr. Joseph P. Gone, Gros Ventre, gave a lecture about his research on mental health of American Indians. He is a clinical psychologist, on faculty at U Michigan.

In the coming academic year, we have several other outstanding Native scholars coming to campus. The lectures are free, open to the public, and are at Levis Faculty Center. Here's a link to our events calendar.

My own work is centered on American Indians in children's literature. I maintain a blog for the purpose of sharing this work with parents, teachers, librarians, and students who don't have access to the sorts of publications where academics publish articles and book chapters.

j.daniel said...

If anyone is looking for the NWC website and a schedule for their tour, here it is:

You can also find some video clips on YouTube here.