Conversation and Reflection: CounterPULSE’s Performing Diaspora Artist Jia Wu

August 29, 2013

Jia Wu, creator and performer of Mama/Medea. Photo credit: Dan Brockett


With summer
in San Francisco comes Performing Diaspora, presented through CounterPULSE
. A forum for traditional artists to experiment in their
disciplines, artists create works that challenge the precepts of such cultural
work (to paraphrase Marc Vogel of the Hewlett Foundation, a key funder of the
program). This year, Performing Diaspora offered work from three Asian American

I was
fortunate enough to be able to view the thought-provoking work of Jia Wu and Joti
, as well as converse with each artist. While Performing Diaspora has
closed for the year, look out for both artists as the year progresses. Both are
local to the Bay Area and will be expanding their works for audiences invested
in exactly what it means to perform and re-form the experiences of those living
in diaspora.

This week,
we review Jia Wu’s work-in-progress, Mama/Medea,
in which Jia interprets the classic Greek drama (431 B.C.) of Medea
through Chinese opera and classical dance. In Mama/Medea Jia performs a sense of othered-ness through the medium of Chinese dance, and using a classic Greek narrative. In doing so, Jia’s Mama/Medea re-positions the normative dramatic backdrop of Euripedes’ tragic tale. Using the "body" of Chinese traditional dance, so to speak, allows Jia to insert her own, newfound sense of immigrant alienation into the Western classical imagination -- thereby reconstructing that narrative for a diverse, contemporary and (in San Francisco) Western audience. She thereby simultaneously performs herself: classically trained, Chinese, immigrant, other. It is, dare I say it, most authentic.

As Jia’s piece begins, she walks downstage wearing only loose-fitting black clothing. Yet, from the neck up, she is in full Chinese operatic make-up and headdress. She picks up an embroidered, bell-sleeved Chinese robe and drapes it slowly over her shoulders. With a tilt of her eyes, she is transformed into a doting woman, Medea. As the piece progresses, she looks about in growing confusion. She looks down again, “Sword,” she says, her finger pressing upward from underneath the sleeve of her robe.

During our post-performance
exchange, I asked Jia, “What was the
inspiration for creating this performance, and what did you hope to achieve?

In reply, she first provided background regarding her experience of diaspora:

When I first moved to the U.S. to
begin graduate studies at the University of California - Los Angeles (UCLA), I
found myself immediately “other-ed.” In China, I am Han, the majority
demographic in China, consisting of 90 percent of the total population… Scholar
Hui Wilcox, Associate Professor at St. Catherine University, has claimed
[regarding Han identity], “…Han Chinese immigrants have to contend with a
different kind of politics, where their own cultural identities are no longer
normative and dominant, and where they become the ‘other’ against which white
American national identity is defined…” My identity shifted immediately upon my
arrival [in the U.S.] It began with confusion in choreography class and
the discovery that I could not imitate my white classmates’ movements or
translate my own. I felt outside my own form for the first time, and did not
know what to do.

In our interview, Jia explained that in Euripedes’ tale,
Medea is a Colchian woman, sorceress, and demi-god who has sacrificed her brother
to win a war for her Greek husband and war hero, Jason. As the play opens,
Medea has been abandoned for Jason’s new bride, a Greek princess. By the end of
the play, she has killed her two children in revenge. In Jia’s words, “Well-versed
in Greek mythology, Euripedes’ audiences would have recognized Medea as an
exotic in a foreign land, struggling and failing to be understood by the
dominant males in Greek aristocratic culture.” It makes sense, then, that Jia
has chosen this narrative as a Western refraction of her own experiences. In
addition, as the text is certainly not new writing, it is possibly also commentary: This has happened before. Many of us have lived in places where the
conditions creating our experiences are not understood.

Towards the end of Mama/Medea,
Jia’s characterization of Medea turns even more frantic. She shakes violently
and walks offstage. When she reappears, she is again dressed only in black, her
face hidden under a red veil. As she progresses laterally across the stage, she
turns her face to the audience and we see the dark “O” of her open mouth. In
live performance, confronting an absence of sound while unable to fully see the face of the performer enacts a sense of being excluded. One feels the imprint of a vague, undefined wound. After Medea
commits infanticide -- depicted through Jia’s shaking hand underneath the now
cradled red veil -- she subsequently smears her carefully applied make-up. For
me, it read as a removal of self.

Jia tells us, "This piece is only the beginning of my research." As a faculty member of St. Mary’s Performing Arts department, Jia will present Mama/Medea again at the Joint Conference of the Congress on Research in Dance and the Society of Dance History Scholars at the University of California - Riverside in November of 2013. As a choreographer for Dance on Camera, she is also curious as to how to transform this work for the screen. After
speaking with Jia and viewing her work, my thought is that the process of
making one’s diasporic position visible and also legible from within one’s own
cultural body may be more than innovative. It seems to be part of a movement
towards greater sanity, in general. 

Check back next week for our conversation with artist Joti
Singh about her work, Red, Saffron, and
Joti employs Bhangara dance, spoken word, and film to pay tribute to her great grandfather and his work for Indian independence.