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Stage Play Magnifies Stereotypes - Part II


I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead, writer S. Pearle Sharpe defends new immigrants.

But first…

(Soundbite of comedy play, "Nigger Wetback Chink")

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #1: Tell them to buckle up - chink, chink - because this is a show with shocking revelation. Meaning…

MARTIN: Three racial slurs you're about hear cut deep. And that's exactly why they were chosen by the writers of a new hit play. Before we tell you about it, we have to tell you the title may be offensive to some listeners.

(Soundbite of comedy play, "Nigger Wetback Chink")

Unidentified Group: Are you in or are you out?

MARTIN: The play is called "Nigger Wetback Chink." And it has drawn huge crowds around the country. Its message - an in-your-face response to stereotypes - is performed by three multi-ethnic former UCLA students. The comedy mixes hip-hop, slam poetry and true-life stories of how these three explosive words have affected the lives of these three men.

Joining me from KPCC in Pasadena, California, are those men: Miles Gregley, Rafael Agustin and Allan Axibal. Gentlemen, thank you all so much for speaking with me.

Mr. MILES GREGLEY (Actor): Hello.

Mr. RAFAEL AGUSTIN (Actor): Hola.

Mr. ALLAN AXIBAL (Actor): Hello.

MARTIN: Rafael, how do you - start with me, if you would. How did this play come about?

Mr. AGUSTIN: You know, it's funny. We ask that in the show. We say, how did three guys like us meet? And we imagine it was probably Compton or Chinatown or East L.A., but the truth is, actually, more telling about the state of minorities today, I think, because we all met at community college. Some of us just had no drive to finish school. Some of us had no money to get a higher education. And some of us just had no legal papers to be in this country. And that…

MARTIN: Not mentioning their names, like Rafael, but…

Mr. AGUSTIN: Not mentioning any names.

Mr. AXIBAL: It could be anyone.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AGUSTIN: So the three of us met at community college, where we also met Steven T. Seagle and Liesel Reinhart. For people that don't know, those are our token white people. They're co-directors, and they co-wrote the show with us. And it's very telling that Liesel was our professor, and she kept in touch with us throughout our transferring from community college to UCLA, to university.

MARTIN: Well, where did you meet? In a playwriting class? Or what was it that drew you together?

Mr. AGUSTIN: That's funny. We actually met at the speech and debate team. I actually just wanted to go to UCLA, because my parents always wanted to be doctors at UCLA. It was their dream and why they came into this country. So I wanted to fulfill that dream - maybe not through medicine, but through theater. And my counselor said we don't have a theater program, but we have the best speech and debate team in the nation. I walked into that room, and that's where all of us met.

Mr. AXIBAL: Yeah. And this is Allan. I walked into that room because I was a geek, and I really wanted to be in the speech and debate.

MARTIN: And Miles, what about you?

Mr. GREGLEY: Yeah. And this is, yeah.

MARTIN: Miles Ellington Gregley.

Mr. GREGLEY: Miles Ellington Gregley. Thank you. I actually ended up in the speech and debate team because I had - it was the only thing left. I was there for about eight years in community college, and I had taken all the classes. And I was like, well, what is this? And I stumbled into this classroom, and it was a beautiful experience.

MARTIN: What makes you go - and Miles, maybe you can sort of pick up the ball, here. What made you go from just sort of being pals in community college to putting together a sort of a provocative piece like this? What - did you start talking one day and thinking - I don't know. How did it come up?

Mr. GREGLEY: Well, it's very interesting, because Rafael was actually heavily involved with theater, you know, before this whole thing had gotten, you know, had taken off to where it is today. You know, I was steadily involved with a lot of stand-up comedy, doing a lot of places around Los Angeles. And Allan was involved with the slam poetry circuit. And so when we had all transferred, we started thinking about things like, you know what? Let's - we wanted to perform more. We knew we were good together, you know what I mean? Because we just took over of our strengths and decided to make a show.

Because Rafael and I were actually in the theater and film department at UCLA, and we just realized that, you know what? There's not a lot of things out there for people of color - things for our generation, things that are really fun to watch. And we're like, well, you know, let's create our own work, you know. But like I said, we didn't expect it to leave the campus. We just did it there, and we're like, okay, let's have our own show. And the next thing we knew, we're on a national tour.

MARTIN: But how did it start? Were you all - I mean, the whole thing of like just go right to, you know, the N-word, the W-word, the C-word.

Mr. AXIBAL: You know…

MARTIN: I've said it once. I'm not saying it again.

Mr. AXIBAL: Yeah. Yeah.

Mr. AGUSTIN: That's all right. We understand.

Mr. AXIBAL: I understand. Yeah. We were really interested in doing something together and performing together. And we knew that, you know, we had these different strengths and that they'd work in a way that that would create a kind of synergy. And while we were, you know, developing concepts and thinking about, you know, what this was going to be about - I'm not sure which person it was, but we just realized that the three of us represent three of the largest minorities in America.

And we thought, you know, what better show to do than that, you know, to represent and do something about that because that has a mass appeal in its own sense. You know, one of the persons that we created was - if you've seen the show, it's called List Game, where we talk about the differences, you know, the stereotypical things that are given to each ethnicity. But then we found these similarities at the same time. And that's…

MARTIN: Okay. Do List Game for me. Do me a little bit of List Game. Somebody…

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Somebody start.

Mr. AGUSTIN: Okay. Here we go.

MARTIN: Go ahead.

Mr. AGUSTIN: I go it. List Game. List some stereotypes that are commonly made about your ethnicity. Go.

Mr. AXIBAL: Rice eater.

Mr. AGUSTIN: Bean eater.

Mr. GREGLEY: Watermelon.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AXIBAL: Honda Civics.

Mr. AGUSTIN: 1987 Cadillac Coup de Ville on (unintelligible) and a wood-grain steering wheel. The brain's blown out. You know I'm saying? I got the tinted windows on it, but athletic comedian, with a rap star career on the side.

Mr. AXIBAL: Internet programmer, math tutor or computer analyst for a Fortune 500 company.

Mr. AGUSTIN: Maid, janitor, grape picker. It really depends on what truck picks me up in front of the Home Depot in the morning.

MARTIN: Okay. I'm getting uncomfortable.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AXIBAL: But see…

MARTIN: Which raises the point, how did people respond to it?

Mr. AXIBAL: Well, that's the thing, you didn't get to the end when…


Mr. AXIBAL: …we finally get to this place at the end of it where we accidentally started listing things that are similar to each other.

MARTIN: Okay. Go ahead. Let's hear it.


(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GREGLEY: I've lost my emotion now.

MARTIN: I'm sorry.

Mr. GREGLEY: It's okay.

Mr. AGUSTIN: Just keeping going from where we started.

Mr. GREGLEY: It's okay.

MARTIN: Well, you can tell me about it. That's fine. Allan, that was you, right? You were talking, right?

Mr. AXIBAL: Oh, okay. Yeah.

MARTIN: So you got to a place of similarity. What are some of those?

Mr. AXIBAL: Yeah. We started naming things like we said hardworking, hardworking, hardworking? You know, and we said strong family ethic, and we got to public schooling, and then the last one was minority. The point of that was to really show that we had a lot more in common than we thought. You know, these different ethnicities, we started talking about our stories and we found the stories coming from different backgrounds and different ethnicities were a lot more similar to each other than we have ever realized.

MARTIN: I'm talking with Allan Axibal, Rafael Agustin, Miles Gregley. They star in a hit controversial play, exploring stereotypes.

How do people respond to it? Do they have the reaction I have, which is you're sitting there and you're feeling, okay, I'm not sure I'm liking this and then they get to a place where it feels better.

Mr. AXIBAL: Yeah. People always get really comfortable right away. Honestly, when we started doing the show, you put the stereotypes out there, you put the words out there, and you get a little bit of that shock value of people going like, wow, those words and wow, those stereotypes. But the show really does use humor to a point. It does try to break down and attack the notion of race itself.

MARTIN: In fact, I was going to ask, what is the point?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AXIBAL: Well, am I the only - okay. (unintelligible)

MARTIN: (unintelligible)

Mr. GREGLEY: Allan…

Mr. AXIBAL: Yeah.

Mr. GREGLEY: Allan is not like the smart one, because he…

Mr. AXIBAL: No, no, no.

Mr. GREGLEY: …just…

MARTIN: No, he was just picking up the ball. Go ahead. I assumed because you all are gentlemen, and you were waiting for Allan to finish. And I can see the others…

Mr. GREGLEY: Distinguished.

MARTIN: Politely interject. Allan, what is the point?

Mr. AXIBAL: We do have one major theme in the show, which is that there's only one race, the human race. And it's such a simple thing, but you'd be surprised when we take around the rest of the United States, how that's such as a realization for some communities.

MARTIN: And Miles, how are you observing that it's a revelation for some people?

Mr. GREGLEY: Well, it's interesting. I mean, you leave California - and the interesting thing about California itself, it's very diverse, you know what I mean? But at the same time, it's very segregated. You know, we kind of tend to stick to our own group. When we leave California, you get all types of stories of people. And the one thing that I noticed is that people identify with you, and they don't necessarily have to be black. Like, you know, me myself, like people that are white or Latino or Asian have come up to me after the show and be like, dude, I completely understand the struggle that you went through, and I went through the same thing. And that's what the whole show is about. It's not just about being black, Asian or Latino. It's just about being an individual and growing up and trying to find out who you are and finding that self love.

MARTIN: Why use these words?

Mr. AXIBAL: Well, we do want people to understand there's a difference between calling people these words and having a dialogue about them. And that's part of the reason why we're using these words - to have that dialogue. Because we feel that being P.C., its got it's place, but I think that it's suffocated the dialogue a little bit about race. And we wanted to use these words to - and put them in people's faces so that it would provoke some kind of reaction so that people would start to talk about these issues.

MARTIN: Can I just stop you right there, because, Miles, I think many people, some people would argue that these words are plenty in our face. There's been a lot of discussion about the use of these words this year. And I think - and all of you, I'm sure, remember the whole controversy about radio personality Don Imus, who was taken off the air because of his use of a lot of these words over the years, but in sort of a particular context.

And there are people who would argue, you know, enough, already. We get it. None of these words originated in any of these groups, okay, in each of the groups that you are a part of. These words did not originate in these communities. They were used a weapon against these communities, and some people would argue that for members of these communities to embrace these words only gives permission to other people to use. And so what would you say about that, Miles? You start and maybe Rafael, you want to pick it up.

Mr. GREGLEY: I was watching this documentary called the "N-Word," and Paul Mooney, who was a famous writer for Richard Pryor - are you familiar with Paul Mooney?

MARTIN: He's been on the program many times.

Mr. GREGLEY: Paul Mooney's an excellent writer, an excellent performer. And in the documentary, he says, the first time I heard the word nigger was out of a black person's mouth, you know what I mean? And a lot of people are growing up like that. You know, the youth now of today have no idea the power that that word has, you know what I mean? You hear it in hip-hop, but, you know, back in the day when hip-hop artists were using it, I think there was a purpose to it. You know, they were using it as far as de-powering that word and using it as kind of like a term of endearment within brotherhood.

I can't define what that word means for the next black person. For me, personally, I don't use that word, but I do think that it's important for the youth of today to have an understanding where it came from before they just go blurting it out.

MARTIN: Rafael, what about you? Because there's also been a dialogue, I think, in the Latino community about the use of the word, the W-word, along the same lines.

Mr. AGUSTIN: You mentioned that so much has been done this year over the use of these words in the bad way. Why don't we ever get coverage on the use of these words in the proper way, the way that we're trying to use them, like in art? These words have tried to take place of our cultural identities, so we're trying to tackle these words.

You asked us why use these words? Well, why not? People use these words against us. So yeah, let's talk about this. You know, that's the most important thing about the opening of our show. We have three individual stories that talk about the first time we heard these words and how these words affected our lives at a very young age.

MARTIN: Who comes to your show?

Mr. AGUSTIN: You know, the one thing that we've noticed is we bring a diverse group of people to our shows. You know, when we first started, we started at UCLA. But once we left, we realized that there's a lot of people that want to talk about this dialogue and wanted to be involved, and that age and ethnicity and creed had nothing to do with, you know, everybody was interested in - and watching the show and talking about it.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask that. Have you observed that your predominantly white audiences respond differently than your more diverse audiences, or do you find that it depends on where you are, perhaps more around the country?

Mr. AGUSTIN: Slightly differently. There are little nuances everywhere, definitely, I mean, whatever community you go to. But we feel that when you have a multicultural diverse audience, there's this validation to laugh, you know. Because if there's a black joke up there, you know, and the Asian guys are like should laugh at that? And you see everyone else laughing (unintelligible). And you think to yourself, oh, it's okay to laugh at that.

And we've had some, you know, predominantly white audiences take a longer time to warm up to it, because they don't have that same validation. But they do warm up to it at the end, and they do get the point because what we're doing, like Miles says, is we made the play all-inclusive.

You don't have to be black, Latino or Asian to enjoy or appreciate the stories. It's about being human and growing into, you know, your own personal identity.

MARTIN: You've talked about the ways in which you feel that the play is transforming for the people who are seeing it. Has there been something about this experience that's been transforming for you?

Mr. AGUSTIN: In writing the show, in particular for me, we were very close friends before we wrote this show. But there were still things we had never known about each other. I remember when we first talked about when these words were first used against us, and Allan was talking about chink and how it affected him, that was the first time that someone told him why don't you get this surgery done? And I said what the hell is the surgery? It's like, oh, the eye surgery. It's very common among Asian communities. And I said what?


Mr. AGUSTIN: I thought that was so amazing that we knew each other so well, but we didn't know that part about each other.

MARTIN: And, Rafael, while we have you for just the last minute that we have left, I understand that you - something very special is happening for you this week.

Mr. AGUSTIN: Yes. This Thursday, I am going to be sworn in as a U.S. citizen after 20 some-odd years in this country.

MARTIN: That just must be amazing, and particularly to have that come at a time when there's been so much dialogue around the whole immigration experience, especially the illegal immigration sort of experience. So, is there a way in which your experience over the years first as an illegal immigrant and then as a person sort of in this middle ground in this kind of a nether world or purgatory in a way - because you're sort of stuck. And now you're kind of - now you're a public figure. How do you even think about that, or has - is there something about that experience that you can share that's part of the work?

Mr. AGUSTIN: The very - yeah. The very first thing you said is how did this show get started? And part of it was my need to tell my parents' story, that they lived in this country - we lived in this country 14 years illegally, and we had no rights and it's our survival in this country. It's the idea that no one wants us here, but we pay taxes every day of our lives that we spend in this country.

The whole concept of the American revolution where there's no taxation without representation, that's exactly what they're doing to a lot of people here who are afraid to speak out of fear of deportation. And I was just trying to give a voice to this group of people. And it's very - it's very beautiful that - that it happened right before the immigration debates. Because now that we're focusing on illegal immigration, there is something concrete out there that people could put a face to, you know what I mean?

MARTIN: I do. Well, congratulations.

Mr. AGUSTIN: Thank you.

MARTIN: And welcome. I'm happy to have you.

Mr. AGUSTIN: And I would like to thank this country for accepting me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, I think that's very nice. Rafael Agustin, Miles Gregley and Allan Axibal perform in a hit controversial play that's for stereotypes and racial slurs. They joined us from KPCC in Pasadena, California. Gentlemen, thank you all for speaking with us.

Mr. AGUSTIN: Thank you.

Mr. GREGLEY: Thank you so much for having us.

Mr. AXIBAL: Thank you for having us. Take care. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.