Racial Politics With A Beat: Silk Road Rising's Re-Spiced Cabaret
Musical revues usually strive for easy-on-the-ears melodies, warbled by attractive vocalists, often with an emphasis on romantic ballads—but when your theme's satirical edge centers on the oft-distorted portrayal of ethnic minorities by chauvinistic host countries, the score runs the risk of incensing audiences, even when performed by representatives of the very cultures described therein.
Some selections in Silk Road Rising's Re-Spiced cabaret revue are catchy-rhythm nonsense like the Bangles dance-craze ditty, "Walk Like An Egyptian" or the venerable Harry Warren-Mort Dixon swing classic from 1928, "Nagasaki" with its infectious refrain of "Back in Nagasaki/where the fellas chew tobaccy/and the women wicky-wacky-woo." Less playful, however, is the hostility expressed by rapper Ice Cube toward his neighborhood's immigrant shopowners in "Black Korea" ("one-penny countin' motherf**rs...your little chop-suey ass'll be a target"), or the reduction of Asian women to "I like it spicy/that'll do me nicely" decorations in Status Quo's "The Oriental." Even Kinky Friedman's anti-bigotry anthem "They Don't Make Jews Like Jesus Any More" requires the narrator to repeat a list of epithets spewed forth by the racist bully he then proceeds to denounce.
"The toughest part of performing these songs," says Joel Kim Booster, "is the nagging fear that some audience members might not get the indictment of what's behind the lyrics and instead, see it as an endorsement of the humor—or hate."
Max Chung concurs. "The show is about us taking ownership of these songs to go beyond the stereotype by making it personal. But when you're Korean—as I am—performing something like 'Black Korea' sets you up for possible reprisals if you're the one doing it."
The show number drawing the most vivid reaction from audiences, however, is Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue". Though written in response to the bombing of the World Trade Center in 2001, the lyrics of this warning to those who would wage war with America never name a specific enemy. Even so, the vehemence of such pronouncements as "The statue of liberty started shakin' her fist" and "The big dog will fight when you rattle his cage/you'll be sorry you messed with the U.S. of A" proved too much for some playgoers.
"In its original form, [the song] is quite fervent in its patriotism," says Danny Bernardo, "so we approach it with the same zeal that the songwriter did. But one Saturday, as we sang 'Uncle Sam put your name at the top of his list!', a middle-aged Caucasian couple in the back row got up and stormed out. The house manager told us that, as they left, one of them said, 'This is America! They may have freedom of speech, but we don't want to hear it!'."
Bernardo reports a variety of feedback in the post-show discussions, "Some people say, 'It's so empowering to see and hear these songs' and others, 'I never thought about [a lyric's] context until you guys did it." These are the types of conversations that this show is sparking, but it wasn't until that one couple walked out that I felt the full impact. I wish they'd stayed, so that we could have asked them why they were so affected by that song."
Re-Spiced runs through May 6 at Silk Road Rising's theater in the Chicago Temple.
Mary Shen Barnidge
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