In past generations, women had status in Asian societies as shamans, but such mysticism is now frowned on in most modern Asian cultures. Still, the idea of powerful ancient matriarchies is magnetic for many Asian American women who grew up in traditional families. Victoria Linchong is like many Americans of immigrant parents who seek their roots but feel disconnected from their heritage. She was inspired by memories of her Taiwanese grandmother to create "Big Flower Eater," a whimsical collage of folktales, rituals, dance and historical texts. Performed by an ensemble of three Asian-American actresses, the play conjures the untold history of women in Asia through shamanism in three different cultures: Hmong, Taiwanese and Korean. It will be presented by Theater for the New City February 7 to 24.
In the play, a young Taiwanese-American woman pastes her grandmother's fortunes on her bathroom wall, setting off a host of unearthly activities in her small Lower East Side apartment. The ghost of her eccentric grandmother takes up residence in the ceiling causing a constant leak and attracting the lost soul of an epileptic Hmong girl. The mysterious malfunctions of the bathroom are finally explained with a visit from a Korean-American friend, whose disturbing receptivity to the spirits leads to a revelation regarding the long tradition of shamanism in her now-Christian family. The play culminates in a re-enactment of a Korean shamanistic ritual, with traditional drumming by Vongku Pak. The title is taken from a derogatory Chinese term that literally means big flower eater but colloquially means dreamer or fool.
Linchong drew upon her grandmother's superstitions in creating the piece. She writes, "After my grandmother died, I found a woven pouch, which contained several mysterious pieces of red paper covered with Chinese calligraphy. My mother told me they were fortunes and I surmised that my grandmother had them cast for several members of my family. On the suggestion of my boyfriend at the time, I pasted the fortunes on my bathroom wall, which then began to leak and fluctuate oddly between heat and cold. I joked at the time that my grandmother was unhappy about the location of her fortunes, but the joke stopped being so funny after the entire ceiling came down, ruining all but a few of the fortunes.
"Later, I was inspired by two books on Asian shamanistic beliefs to develop the joke into a play: 'The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down' by Anne Fadiman, in which an epileptic Hmong girl becomes the center of a struggle between the California medical establishment and her refugee family's traditional beliefs; and 'Comfort Woman' by Nora Okja Keller, about a young girl's troubled relationship with her mother, whose traumatic experience as a comfort woman during the Korean War has exacerbated her preternatural ability as a spiritual medium."
"Big Flower Eater" is conceived and directed by Ms. Linchong, whose family is originally from Taiwan. In addition to Linchong the play is acted by Kira Onodera (Japan) and Katherine Yew (Korea) to percussive accompaniment by Vongku Pak (Korea). Lighting Design is by Dan Winters; video design is by Sergei Krasikov and set design is by Craig Napoliello.
The piece was devised using exercises developed by Complicite and Frantic Assembly, two British theater companies. It was workshopped at Horse Trade Theatre Company in 2011.
Victoria Linchong (director, actor) is a Taiwanese-American theater and film artist. She started her theatrical career at the age of fourteen as an actress in TNC's annual summer Street Theater. Her producing credits include five plays by James Purdy, including "Sun of the Sleepless" (TNC, 1989) with Laurence Fishburne and Sheila Dabney, and the Obie Award winning anti-war event "Stop the Way: a Festival for Peace in the Middle East" (TNC, 1990). More recently, she produced, directed and acted in "Paper Angels" by Genny Lim, which workshopped in New York City and traveled to San Francisco, where it played to capacity crowds outdoors in Chinatown and won Best of the San Francisco Fringe. She is currently in post-production on "Almost Home: Taiwan," a documentary on Taiwan's identity and independence. She studied acting with Sanford Meisner and at the British American Drama Academy at Oxford University in England. She is the Artistic Director of Direct Arts, an intercultural theater and film company. Linchong writes, "I am pleased to return to Theater for the New City, one of the most innovative and courageous theater producers in America. TNC was instrumental to my development as an actress, writer, director and producer. I am indebted to Crystal Field, Mark Marcante and the amazing family of artists at TNC, who gave me my first opportunities and continue to encourage me in my work."