I wish I could tell you the name of the play I saw at the Mondavi Studio Theater last night, but it can’t be printed in a family newspaper. “N*W*C*” stands for the racial slurs that are used for African Americans, Latinos, and Asians, but most newspapers use the shortened form to avoid being offensive. Publicity material from the University cautions, “Patrons should be advised that the production uses offensive language.”
The reaction to the title of the piece pretty much explains the purpose of writing and performing it in the first place.
The production was scheduled for only three performances, but brisk ticket sales necessitated adding a fourth performance, January 26th at 10:30 p.m.
N*W*C* is a 90-minute original work for the stage produced by L.A.-based Speak Theater Arts that co-writers Rafael Agustin, Allan Axibal, and Miles Gregley say “traces the origins and evolution of three derogatory terms that shaped our lives and took the place of a genuine understanding of our distinct cultures.” N*W*C* mixes comedy with the real-life stories of three young men from different ethnic backgrounds to deconstruct the notion of race in America.
It won the 2003 award for “Best Play” from the American Readers Theater Association, as well as the Audience Prize and four other major awards.
Gregley, Agustin and Axibal were all best friends (in itself an unusual thing, given their mixed racial ethnicity, the actors told the audience at a Q&A following the show) who developed N*W*C* as a one-night senior project while attending UCLA. It was so successfully received that a six-week engagement in downtown Los Angeles followed, and then they were booked for a national tour. It has now been touring for four years and has been playing to sell-out crowds across the country.
Neo-Nazis threatened one performance in Olympia, WA, while the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People sent out fliers condemning their use of the ethnic slur against blacks at another one (proving that the show really does bring people together, joked one of the actors).
The show begins with Axibal, dressed in a blue satin outfit you might find on any mannequin in Chinatown, stepping out from behind a panel chanting the Asian epithet over and over again. He is joined by Agustin dressed in stereotypical Latino garb joining in the chant with his own particular epithet, and finally Gregley, wearing a flowing full-length coat and a red feathered hat chants the “N-word” over and over. By the time the chant has finished, the audience is already starting to become inured to the terms.
Gregley lets the audience know how many times they have heard the N-word during the piece, Agustin repeats with how many times he has said the W-word, and when Axibal says that he has said the C-word 270 times, the other two complain that he always has to overachieve.
This sets up a section where the three men list the various stereotypes attributed to each of their ethnicities (such as the overachieving Asian).
They compare their individual experiences growing up, and learning first that they were different and then how those differences would set them apart in a predominately white world. (“You don’t know how to hate yourself when you’re 8 years old,” says Axibal. “That’s what school is for!”)
They talk about the things that they tried to do to blend in with their surroundings. In a funny monologue, Gregley talks about growing up in California and the culture shock he received when his mother moved the family to Georgia, where he had to learn to “be black,” when he was not accepted by his peers because looked and sounded too Californian.
Axial recalls how his mother promised him she would raise the money so he could have “the operation,” which he explains is the slitting of his eye-lids to make his eyes look more rounded, and more “western.”
Agustin shows headshots of himself as a blonde, when he bleached his hair to give himself a chance at being cast in shows when directors felt he looked too Latin.
In the end, the audience sees how we are all more alike than we are different, if we open ourselves to dialog with others.
N*W*C* is a funny show with a powerful message, the message being that everything really is all about race: the human race.