Review: Caucasian-Aggressive Pandas

Caucasian-Aggressive Pandas and Other M...* Tales is a kind of allegorical mémoire for the stage, pairing veteran Twin Cities actor Derek 'Duck' Washington with director Jena Young and a smart ensemble cast made up of Samantha Cross, Ted Femrite, Matthew Kessen, and Kirsten Wade. The show, produced by Fearless Comedy Productions, retraces some of the key events that have shaped Washington's life. It also pits him against a pair of mutated, hyper-intelligent pandas bent on killing all the white people.

So it's not entirely mémoire. There's fiction in it. There's silly, ridiculous, farce-turned-to-eleven fiction, but its roots in the play's primary truth sprout some serious real world questions.
The titular pandas want revenge against the scientists whose experiments turned them into the monsters they are now. All of those scientists were white, though, and the result is that their mutant panda brains see the Venn Diagram representing all white people and all mad scientists as a big circle. Which is an innocent enough mistake, really. One anyone could make:

"All scientists must be killed," goes their reasoning, "and all scientists are white people, therefore all white people are scientists. Therefore, all white people must be killed. And eaten. Because they're delicious."
Duck, however, is bi-racial. The Caucasian aggressive pandas aren't sure what to make of him, but they offer to let him go if he can prove he's black. Unfortunately, their idea of proof relies on stereotypes to which Washington just doesn't live up. If he can just "act black" enough, though, he gets to live. After some uncomfortable attempts to look or act or sound the way the pandas want, he gives up and offers an impassioned appeal to their sense of reason instead.
"Being black isn't a style or an attitude," he tells them, "and it certainly isn't a vocabulary!"
They're not trying to hear that, though.
Washington's script covers a lot of other ground. It traces his life as an ethnic inbetweener from youth to present day. It offers up stories of the respective rises and falls of Washington's early role models, explaining why he hates Mariah Carey and how he can never pass his childhood love of Cosby on to the next generation. It recounts the ways in which he always thought being bi-racial was actually pretty awesome, and the many ways in which the world at large was out to de-awesome it.
It recalls Washington's first experience with a racial slur, checking the "other" box, being "randomly selected to have a really bad day" by the TSA, and his acting career, in which he can count on being cast to play the Hispanic or terrorist role in any play. The story ends with Duck's death, when he's forced to choose between Black Heaven and White Heaven in the segregated afterlife. And while the rest of the show is good, this bit puts it over the top. It is smart, funny and wince-worthy in all the right ways.
All in all, Pandas exemplifies the kind of tense marriage between lofty social commentary and low brow gags that fills Fearless Comedy Productions' wheelhouse. For that, Washington's show probably couldn't have found a better home. The script's keen, dark hilarity couldn't have been better if Dave Chappelle and Mark Twain had collaborated on it.
The play isn't just funny, though. It's also important for a couple of major reasons: First, it's speaking on a subject that doesn't get a lot of attention. Pandas is a show about identity. More specifically, it's about dual identity, missing identity, and imposed identity.
The idea of race, (itself something of a vestigial social misnomer with which we humans are apparently stuck,) can leave you feeling hounded and harangued whether you're red, yellow, black or white. (With all due apologies for invoking yet another vestigial social misnomer.) I'll review any show that tackles identity like this, because as far as we like to think we've come as a society, our dialogue on race still needs help. But then we all know that already.
The second reason Pandas is significant is just where it lands on the spectrum of that racial dialogue: It doesn't. It can't, really, because it's a show conceived and written by a writer who can't land firmly anywhere on that spectrum either.
Duck Washington is the grown child of an interracial marriage. He's black, or white, or both or neither. It all depends on who's defining him. In the dialogue on race, that sort of thing can cause some long and uncomfortable lulls. That's if it comes up at all.
Even though the number of bi-racial, mixed race or "other" Americans increased by 50% in this century's first decade, according to the 2010 census, and multiracial humans are out there among the rest of you -- and they're wearing all possible phenotypes at all levels of melanin content -- people are generally still really uncomfortable talking about them. In fact, it's a topic that everyone usually just avoids. Even in the arts, where the goal is so often to challenge conventions, conventional wisdom says to change the subject.
(As an anecdote, consider the number of mainstream arts writers who've covered this show: As of this writing, the only two critics who've given it any ink have been other self-identifying multiracial writers. Both were drawn to the show in part because they identified with it, or sought to, in ways they don't normally get to. None of the other arts critics have even looked its way. If you thought this topic was already uncomfortable, think about that for a bit.)
Now take how uncomfortable you are, and think about how much more uncomfortable it gets when others are that uncomfortable with you, just because you exist. Now take a step back from the whole thing before you start thinking everyone with a multi-ethnic genotype is doomed to a lonely, miserable, outcast existence. Because that's not really true. That's another misnomer, and it's the kind that leads to those "think of your children" arguments that well-meaning ignorant people make to young interracial couples.
Anyway, that's where this show goes. It goes there, and it does when not many others will, so it's a standout piece of art on just those merits alone. Add that it's a closer look at Duck Washington, the person. It's personal and vulnerable. It tells the comedic story of the kind of striving, sometimes defeated everyman that we've come to expect Washington to play. This one, though, is about a striving, sometimes defeated everyman named Duck.
The show is a lot of things. At least two of those things really stand out: It's a ridiculous comedy that ends like a British sitcom. You probably can't not laugh, even if you do it uncomfortably. It's also a raised voice among the quieted outliers in our collective racial discourse, and an expressed hope that those other voices will someday sound off along with it.
And maybe that hope will never be totally fulfilled, but that's no reason to give up on it. After all, It's getting there. Even if it's only getting there at this moment via one small play and a couple of reviews, that's still a start, and not a particularly bad one.

Caucasian-Aggressive Pandas continues at Bryant-Lake Bowl, 810 W Lake Street, MPLS
Purchase tickets online ($12-15)
Fri, Nov. 20 @ 7pm
Sat, Nov. 21 @ 7pm 
* American Underground has censored this show's title because the word-blocking algorithms employed by some social media sites would have limited their users' ability to share it otherwise. This decision was made to ensure maximum online exposure for the show, the shareworthiness of which supersedes the importance of spelling it all out.

Author: Rob Callahan | Category: The Arts