“Too many foreigners at this party,” jokes Ping Chong, writer and director of GALA Hispanic Theatre’s production of Undesirable Elements, at the end of another rehearsal. Salsa music blares out of a portable radio, and members of the cast show off their dance moves. Remnants of potluck bean dip with tortilla chips, lasagna, and spring rolls stare up from the table next to an apple pie stuck with flags from the cast members’ countries: Liberia, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Vietnam, and Mexico. Within the span of three hours, local artists Marlene Cooper, Alida Yath, Arnoldo Ramos, Sandy Dang, and Eugenio Longoria have exposed personal stories to show that even in Washington, D.C.,
the immigrant experience can make you someone whom no one else wants.
Dramatized through song, poetry, and slide projections, Undesirable Elements patrols the borders between those born in one culture and those they meet in another. “It’s a way to build a bridge between people who don’t know each other,” Chong says. In 1991, the director was teaching a staging class to students who knew only limited English in Amsterdam when he came up with the idea of doing a piece using a lot of languages.
The following year, he created an installation in response to the “intolerance of difference” of the Reagan era, which he titled A Facility for the Challenging and Changing of Undesirable Elements. That work later evolved into a performance piece incorporating different personal histories, backgrounds, and identity issues in America. In other community-specific adaptations across the nation, the term “undesirable” has been defined along lines of class, race, and religion. But after interviewing more than 20 people in D.C. and selecting five whose stories moved him the most, Chong noticed that the refugee experience was the common thread in the nation’s capital.
From their chairs on the dimly lit stage during a run-through of the production, the five cast members quiz each other: “What do you think of when you hear the word [Liberia? Mexico? Vietnam? Costa Rica? Guatemala?]” The questions echo in the air, and the answers come in stereotypes: “Bare-breasted women” (Liberia), “Nike” (Vietnam), “Taco Bell” (Mexico). But to the natives of the countries, the words evoke images of childhood, culture, the essence of who they are, and the distance they’ve come to get here. —Ayesha Morris
Undesirable Elements runs Thursday, June 1, to Saturday, June 3, at 8 p.m. at GALA Hispanic Theatre, 1625 Park Road NW. Admission is $12. For more information, call (202) 234-7174.