Seven.11 Convenience Theatre
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
April 2, 2006
Seven.11 Convenience Theatre, a program of new one-act plays about Asian American life, is very charming and funny. The central idea—each play is set in a different 7-11 convenience store—sparks a zesty playfulness in the program’s eight different writers that would fit right in on a television show like Saturday Night Live or MADtv. However, despite its good humor and its well-intentioned stab at promoting ethnic diversity, Seven.11 Convenience Theatre offers no new cultural insight into Asian American life.
The best plays here mine a rich vein of zaniness that provides laughs aplenty. In Jackson Loo’s Kung Fu Hustle a young Chinese American man sets out to learn Kung Fu (“I should be able to do this. It’s part of who I am!”) so he can win the heart of an attractive martial arts instructor. Samrat Chakrabarti and Sanjiv Jhaveri’s Who Killed Mr. Naidu First? turns a convenience store owner’s murder investigation into a musical comedy whodunit. In the futuristic The Old New World J.P. Chan makes a 7-11 a battleground for archeological superiority between two 22nd-century global superpowers. A nerdy store clerk throws a monkey wrench into a junk food pit stop for two teenage runaways, on the lam from an arranged marriage, in Elizabeth Emmons’s Undone. The authors here all come up with inventive and interesting little details: the protagonist in Kung Fu Hustle is learning martial arts from Kung Fu for Dummies; the made-up codes and protocols in The Old New World are complicated enough to rival the Geneva Convention; and there’s more than a couple of unpolished teenage bon mots in Undone (“Wait! You’re running away? But you still have my jacket!”).
The other plays in Seven.11, while providing some equally great moments, feel sub-par when viewed next to their more accomplished counterparts. In Vishakan Jeyakumar’s Jaffna Mangoes, a store clerk and two regulars trade insights about women and dating. Two former high school flames reunite awkwardly and unexpectedly at the 7-11 in Celena Cipriaso’s Homecoming. The protagonist of Rehana Mirza’s Bombay Screams, an out-of-work Broadway actor (he was in Bombay Dreams) slaving away at the local convenience store, must decide between assimilating into “normal” (i.e., white) society for the sake of his career or embracing his ethnicity. All three are promising, but feel unfinished in their current states, either because of a paucity of plot (Homecoming, Bombay Screams) or meaning (Jaffna Mangoes). The germ of an idea is there in all three, but for now it remains only a germ.
The larger problem affecting all the plays in Seven.11 is one of relevancy. There’s no doubt that everyone here is talented, but the point of this show, produced by Desipina & Company, remains a mystery. If the point is “to nurture the works of underrepresented multi-ethnic individuals, as well as empower female artists to tell their stories,” as stated in Desipina’s mission statement, then Seven.11 does just that: all of the playwrights meet at least one of those criteria. But, if the point is also to “acknowledge the unique differences that exist within the Asian American communities,” as another part of their mission statement claims, then the show must be counted, in part, as a failure. Those differences, as real as they may be, are never seen, talked about, or dealt with. In fact, Seven.11 could be accused of the same reactionary assimilation reflex that the protagonist of Bombay Screams suffers from. There is almost nothing about the production that seems to be exclusive to the Asian American community. On the contrary, all the plays in Seven.11 feel like they could be about any ethnic group. Maybe that’s the point: that the Asian American community is no different than any other. But I still couldn’t help feeling as if there were an element of pandering to it all. Yes, working and shopping in a convenience store is a part of Asian American life, but I find it a little disheartening that the creators of the show think that the best way to illuminate the nuances of their culture is to buy into the cultural stereotype of the 7-11 clerk. As funny and well done as some of these plays are, there is nothing illuminating or enlightening about that.
On a more positive note, the seven-member cast is good across the board. Bill Caleo, Meetu Chilana, Andrew Guilarte, Sean T. Krishnan, Jerold E. Solomon, John Wu, Alicia Ying all bring good energy and well-honed comic timing to Seven.11. Director Darrow Carson maximizes the laughs and keeps the show moving at a good clip, navigating scene changes with ease thanks to Shana Solomon’s mobile sets that allow each store location to be reconfigured quickly. Jenny Fisher’s fun costumes and Jeff McCrum’s serviceable lights also add nicely to the overall production.
Seven.11 Convenience Theatre is a good idea that needs some more refining. Desipina & Company is to be commended for promoting the work of up-and-coming multi-ethnic writers of both genders. But, if they want the rest of the world to look at them beyond the narrow scope of ethnic stereotypes, they need to look at themselves that way first.