The authenticity in getting Caught with Christopher Chenby Matthew Paul Olmos
I distinctly remember walking into a screening room lobby at the Sundance Resort in the mountains of Utah for the final workshop presentation of Christopher Chen’s Caught, a piece Chen had spent the past three weeks rigorously developing as part of the 2014 Sundance Theater Lab. During our time together at Sundance, I had begun to know Chen’s personality as thoughtful, very kind, and somewhat shy; he was the sort of person you immediately feel comfortable enough to share an embarrassing story with. However, nothing in his unassuming social persona prepared me for the unpredictability in his work. When the performance of Caught began, I felt a stupid grin start to creep up my face and stay plastered there for the entire mind-bending ride through a “rabbit hole,” as Christopher calls it, of questioning “what is authentic” and whether there is ever a concrete answer to that.
The play, which begins performances on August 17 at The Play Company, involves the subversive Chinese artist Lin Bo, an artist who apparently gained notoriety and punishment for his art and went international after a feature in the New Yorker. The narrative also centers itself around a Chinese installation artist Wang Min, who has created a piece inspired by scandals involving plagiarism—most specifically one centering on Mike Daisey, who came under fire for his theater performance about labor conditions in the alleged factory in China where iPhones are made, a story which was later found to be fictionalized to the extreme. To say much more about the plot of Caught would undermine the unique theatricality which Chen has created.
Underneath Chen’s distinctive and exhilarating form of storytelling is almost a deconstruction of truth and ownership as played out through an examination of whom Lin Bo and Wang Min are as artists.
In the play, Wang Min is interviewed by Curator about her interest in the Mike Daisey scandal:
So what caught your interest in this incident?
One of my main points of interest has always been America’s relationship to truth, particularly in relation to other countries.
America places a high premium on “truth.” No persons of any other culture get more defensive when questioned over their “truth.” This piece of journalism must be absolutely, empirically true. This piece of art must be emotionally truthful. So when a glitch in “truth” occurs, the impulse is to defend and argue your own “rules of truth” to the death.
So it’s—“truth in journalism trumps truth in art…”
Exactly. And in the meanwhile the real content of truth—workers’ conditions in China—gets sidelined in the conversation. This is what captured my imagination—how arcane American truth battles reveal the hollowness of her global outreach.
The genesis of Caught occurred when Chen took a trip to China in 2009 and visited 798 Art District in Beijing, which is devoted solely to Chinese contemporary art. “I was so taken aback when I walked through the streets because they seemed to be filled with politically provocative art, which went against my preconceptions of what the Chinese government would allow,” recalls Chen. “Afterwards, I did a little digging and found out that the original artists who founded the district have long since been evicted, and they were critical of their current government. And in their place comes art that’s critical of something that’s safer to be critical of—namely, Mao’s older government. I concluded that it’s like a dam or a levee: you allow in a little bit of subversion for the goal of a greater means of control.”
While the topic of China shows up in several of Chen’s works, it is something he presents from a perspective he himself questions. Born to a Chinese father and a Caucasian mother, Chen describes his work as dealing with “shifting perspectives of one culture to another.” I ask him more about this. “Right now I think America’s in this strange place of competition and awe of China, with definite echoes of the Cold War,” he explains. “I’m always interested in America’s relationship to other cultures: the preconceptions that are layered upon other cultures and how narratives are formed because of that. And I do have personal questions about my own conceptions of China, and how much ownership I have over the subject matter, given that my identity is very fluid and mixed.”
In talking about where an author exists in his or her work, a playwriting mentor of mine, Rogelio Martinez, once told me that the moment he as a theater audience realizes what “side” of an issue the playwright is on, he disengages a bit. Chen wholly embraces this notion, as Caught exists less in finding answers; he says, “As opposed to a story about such and such, I’d say the play is more of a meditation. It is a meditation on the process of questioning. It questions authority and authenticity, and digs into the intersections of political art, journalism, cultural appropriation, and basic human relationships.”
In the play, Curator attempts to define Wang Min’s perspective as an artist:
Okay, but I think essentially we’re saying the same thing, that you can’t blame Daisey for lying within a lying paradigm, right?
(Excited) Ah okay, okay!
So this is absolutely not what I am saying, but—
But I think I can explain it this way. “Blame.” This is an American, Fox News word: who takes whose side, who is to blame. This is the game I am attempting to break apart with this work.
While Caught is a piece of theater that defies any exact definition or meaning, it has particular relevance right now as the political and social landscape we currently find ourselves within seems to have created a currency of literal truth versus perception or insistence of truth. As the United States’ presidential candidates fling “facts” out into the media, as the public attempts to navigate those facts from fiction, as social media frenzies around who is on whose side—and who is right and who is wrong—this country is in disarray around what is authentic. Even this paragraph you the reader are currently reading—it is nothing more than me, the author of this article for the Brooklyn Rail, putting my own perspective onto Chen’s art and hoping it contextualizes it in such a way that you will have as intoxicating an experience as I had when I myself first saw Caught. Is any of what I’ve said about Christopher Chen or his play Caught even accurate? Is he actually shy? Did the genesis of this play really begin while Chen was literally in China?
In the play, Wang Min teases out this idea for us:
A lie is not a bad thing. It is a natural occurrence and is totally understandable. Mike Daisey, James Frey. Why did they lie? Because a lie is a new home. A place of return after long and lonely journeys in the dark. Now comes the point in the work where we recognize the interview has changed into something else. Something new. We’re unmoored now. Adrift at sea. We are witnessing the birth of a new lie as we speak. We see how in our search for truth we move into something artificial once again. How do we escape lies? A lie is a garden that grows sideways until its sidewaysness becomes straight. It is a feast made from mislabeled ingredients that taste incredible. It is a documentary. A dollar bill. It is thinking outside the box but then being inside the outside of the box so going further going outside the inside of the outside of the box by going back inside the box to be outside the outside of the box then leaving the box to find another box whose outside has an outer outside outside outside the outside.
When preparing to write this piece, I told Christopher Chen that what I truly loved when I saw the workshop of Caught—and still loved when I read it—was how the play never lets the audience sit in any one place, either narratively or intellectually, long enough to ever get too comfortable or confident; the audience is always unsure where to look for any sort of absolute. And though the play invites, almost demands, individual perception, one cannot help but see echoes of the polarization of belief currently running through the American public.
“I think we’re right now in the midst of some extreme cultural paradigm shifts within our country,” Chen says, elucidating this idea. “The hegemonic status quo is in the process of undergoing a seismic shift. People who have stayed silent for a long time are not staying silent anymore and are entering the national discourse in a big way. So now […] there is suddenly a multiplicity of different planes of perception coming into view on the national scale for the first time. And we can see that it is very disorienting for those accustomed to controlling the narrative to have their frames of reference shaken by having different frames of reference jostling and bumping up against their own.”
“There is something I wanted to capture in this play about that very jostling process at a visceral, experiential level,” he continues. “It is extremely difficult (for everyone, not just those in authority) to recognize the unique tunnel vision you are looking through, tunnel vision that blocks out others’ POVs.”
I am loath to reveal too much about Chen’s play, so as to spoil the effect. But I will say that point of view is something that particularly drives the audience through Caught in a beautifully non-linear way; a structure Christopher says, “is meant to illuminate the constructed nature of seemingly unshakeable worldviews by revealing their contours in hindsight.”
Caught by Christopher Chen, directed by Lee Sunday Evans, produced by The Play Company, plays August 17 – September 17 at Summer Shares at La MaMa e.t.c., 66 East Fourth Street, Manhattan. For tickets and more information: http://playco.org/plays/caught.
ContributorMatthew Paul Olmos
MATTHEW PAUL OLMOS is a three-time Sundance Institute Fellowship/Residency recipient, New Dramatists Resident Playwright, Center Theatre Group LA Writers Workshop Playwright, Oregon Shakespeare Festival Black Swan Playwright, Princess Grace Awardee in Playwriting Awardee, and the inaugural La MaMa e.t.c.'s Ellen Stewart Emerging Playwright Awardee as selected by Sam Shepard. Also an Ensemble Studio Theater lifetime member and two-time Resident Artist at Mabou Mines/Suite as mentored by Ruth Maleczech. His work has been seen both nationally and internationally and is published by NoPassport Press and Samuel French. For more information, visit matthewpaulolmos.com.