Syracuse Stage Director Ping Chong

Barbara Haas 10/18/08More articles
Another tale from the Salt City at Syracuse Stage:

Ping Chong always likes to begin rehearsals with a pot-luck supper. Chong is the creator/director of “Tales from the Salt City,” the theater piece that opens at Syracuse Stage next week.

“All the participants bring something from their own culture,” Chong said in a recent interview. “It’s a way to start building bridges.”

But then in all ways, “Tales from the Salt City” is unlike a traditional play. The people on stage are not actors, but real people telling their own stories. The experience common to them -- even in the case of one who has lived in Syracuse all his life -- is that they were born in one culture and live in another.

“’Tales reflects the changing demographics of the community,” Chong said, “We’re all insular, but in the end we come to realize that all humanity is the same. All islands connect under water.”

“Tales from the Salt City” is one of an ongoing series of place-specific oral-history theater works that Chong has created in communities around the country. Participants have included native Americans, people with disabilities and children who had witnessed warfare, civil disorder, or domestic violence. Cong’s next project, in Philadelphia, will focus on teenagers, drugs and violence. All are people whose voices aren’t usually heard. “It’s about social justice,” Chong said.

The seven participants in “Tales from the Salt City” come from as far away as Cambodia and as nearby as the Onondaga Nation. A first-generation American himself, Chong knows from personal experience what it means to have a foot in two cultures. When he was growing up in New York City, almost all the kids in his school were from Chinese families. It was a real shock when he went to high school where he was the only one. He’s always had a feeling for otherness.

In the past Chong has called his documentary-theater series “Undesirable Elements,” but now he favors the title “Secret Histories.” Not that there’s anything voyeuristic about peering into the lives of these people.

They want to tell their personal histories in their own words. Last spring, on the basis of the interest of the stories and the interconnections between them, seven participants were selected out of a group of 30 originally interviewed. Syracuse Stage Dramaturg Kyle Bass and Sara Michelle Zatz, Associate Director of Chong’s theater company, wove the stories together into a script.

The presentation will take the form of “chamber theater,” with the participants sitting in a semi-circle on the stage. But don’t think static. To make the stories vivid, and to help build a cultural and historical context, Chong promises song, dance, video projection, and maybe a few surprises.

“This is theater,” he said, “and it has to be entertaining.”

One of the exciting things about having Timothy Bond take over as Artistic Director at Syracuse Stage is that he brings with him a whole new set of contacts. Bond first worked with Chong 15 years ago in Seattle, and said he knew from the start that Chong had to be part of his first year here. In the theater world, Chong is already well known. His work has been presented at many theaters and festivals around the world, such as Washington’s Kennedy Center, London’s Barbican and New York’s Lincoln Center.

Bond said when introducing Chong in a recent talk at S.U., “A restless explorer of what theater can be.”

Social activism and community dialog is just one side of what Ping Chong does. At his S.U. talk he showed tantalizing images of visually stunning theater pieces that he’s created with the professional actors of his New York-based theater company. His social conscience is equally in evidence in such pieces at “Deshima,” about the migration of European profiteers toward Asia (Chong calls it “an equal-opportunity skewering) and “Truth and Beauty,” which he describes as a vivisection of the dark side where American advertising, manipulation and violence meet. Chong draws on a wealth of technological innovations (e.g. live-feed video) and theatrical traditions (e.g. shadow puppets and Chinese Opera) to tell these complex stories, stories showing us what happened in the past to help us understand who we are today and how we got here.

Chong and Bond are discussing the possibility of including this other side of his work in a future Syracuse Stage season. Let’s hope it happens.

‘Salt City Tales’ is on now
The world premiere presentation of “Tales from the Salt City” opened Tuesday at Syracuse Stage and continues through Nov. 4. Conceived and directed by Ping Chong, the play explores the changing face of Syracuse via interview-based dialogue delivered by seven Salt City residents. This week’s showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursday Oct. 16; 8 p.m. Friday; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday; 7:30 p.m. Wednesday; and 10:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. Thursday Oct. 23. Syracuse Stage is located at 820 E. Genesee St. Ticket prices range from $15 to $48; 443-3275; syracusestage.org.

CATEGORY: Performing Arts
TAGS: ping chong,tim bond,salt city,Undesirable Elements
EDITION: The Eagle

Rating: 2.0/5 (9 votes cast)

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