What’s your last memory of the good old days? You remember the good old days, right? That was back when you never gave toilet paper a thought in the world until you were reaching for it on the can.
"Asian actors decide to put on a play about how a bunch of insignificant losers with weird personal issues found a simple way to alter the course of human events. And the play gets canceled because a bunch of insignificant Asian losers with weird personal issues found a simple way to alter the course of human events."
Those were some fine times.
My last memory before the corona clampdown involves purchasing theater tickets. Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins is a play that has a bum rap among thick-skulled conservatives who assume that just because it’s a musical about the assorted oddballs and nutjobs who’ve killed (or attempted to kill) U.S. presidents, it must therefore be some sort of left-wing anti-American flag-hating agitprop.
In truth, Assassins is, in a way, the ultimate rightist musical. “Where’s my prize? I deserve a fucking prize!” That’s the refrain from the second-act song “Another National Anthem.” Sondheim and John Weidman (who wrote the book) skewer the leftist notion that just because you have an opinion, a “dream,” everyone else has a responsibility to acknowledge and reward you whether you deserve it or not.
“Free country means they listen to you.” I love that line (from the opening number “Everybody’s Got the Right”). Free speech is not enough; you’re oppressed if no one’s listening. Even many on the right are susceptible to that “problematic” way of thinking.
Now, I’ve seen Assassins a dozen times, in L.A., New York, and London. I’ve probably seen it enough for one lifetime. But when I heard that L.A.’s East West Players theater company was mounting an all-Asian production, I realized, “No, I haven’t seen it enough; not by half.”
East West Players is the nation’s oldest Asian-American playhouse, and unlike its male members, it’s very generously endowed. Most of the time, the company produces new and “experimental” crap (the kind of things that make the Bataan Death March look like a pleasant alternative). And in the wake of the massive success of Broadway’s Hamilton, it’s become all the rage among “ethnic” playhouses to give history-themed musicals the racial Freaky Friday treatment, switching up races and genders because, I’m assuming, it expands the mind or asks the right questions or promotes a dialogue or…shit, I’ve run out of clichés.
So, East West was going to present Assassins with Chinese, Japanese, and Korean actors portraying Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley, Squeaky Fromme, Leon Czolgosz, and Charles Guiteau. But not John Wilkes Booth. The role of Booth was given to a black guy.
Wait, a black guy? In an all-Asian production at an all-Asian playhouse?
Stephen Sondheim licenses his work with the proviso that not one word be changed, nor one line cut. The book and music must be performed as-written. And he’s notorious for enforcing that rule (in 2007 he personally threatened to shut down an Australian production of Company for trimming some verbiage). So the East West players have no choice but to perform the play word-for-word. And, as written, the character of Booth says “nigger.” Multiple times.
This was not a problem in the 1990s, when the world was saner. But of course, it’s a problem now. You can’t have an Asian say “nigger.” L.A.’s blacks would no more allow that than they’d allow a white actor to say it. So the East West admins donned their thinking coolie caps, stroked their Fu Manchu mustaches, and realized that the only way to avoid condemnations and boycotts would be to make Booth black. After all, as they were already switching races, why not make a switch that would ensure that no peace-loving, MLK-types burn the theater down on opening night?
I wasn’t there to see it, but the mere knowledge that a group of adults assembled in conference to find a way to make John Wilkes Booth less unlikable makes me smile. If only the meeting had been captured on video, for use in the “Earth’s Stupidest Moments” highlight reel that I truly hope follows the apocalypse.
So, back in early March I thought to myself, “Well, it’s a terrible playhouse that puts on terrible plays, but I think I’ll see this one because I might just get a column out of it.”
Needless to say, it was not to be. Game called on account of plague. Along with all public gatherings of Angelenos, Assassins has been canceled. My biggest regret is that the email informing me of my refund wasn’t accompanied by a GIF of a dowdy Korean shopkeeper screaming at the top of her lungs, “Here you money! You go now, you get out!”
There’s a wonderful irony at play here: A musical in which Asian actors portray assassins whose actions were intended to paralyze America has been deep-sixed by real-life Asians whose actions actually have paralyzed America.
And the irony doesn’t end there. In Assassins, the killers are small people who committed large acts. Sondheim is obsessed with the fact that most American presidential assassins were irrelevant, insignificant people in their daily lives (Booth being the notable exception, but even here Sondheim reduces Booth’s grandiosity by focusing on his feelings of inadequacy in relation to his superstar older brother). In a pivotal second act scene, the assassins revel in the fact that unimportant people can, with the squeeze of a trigger, “close the New York Stock Exchange” and “shut down the schools in Indonesia.”
All you have to do is squeeze your little finger,
Ease your little finger back,
You can change the world.
When the play premiered, Sondheim caught a fair amount of flak from critics for “trivializing” the assassins. In general, we don’t like it when big things are done for small reasons by small people. That’s a prime motivating factor behind the resilience of JFK assassination conspiracy theories. Kennedy was too significant, too larger-than-life. It just feels wrong that a nobody could take him down. One man with a rifle can’t kill Camelot. Surely, it would take the CIA, the Mafia, the military, the bankers, the billionaires.
Those are some assassins worthy of John F. Kennedy.
Conversely, conspiracy theorists by-and-large leave John Hinckley alone, and it’s solely because his aim was poor. We don’t rehash every detail of the Reagan shooting, because the man survived. Ever heard of Jerry Parr? Probably not. He was the Secret Service agent who pushed Reagan into the limo after Hinckley opened fire. No one knew yet that the president had been shot. In the car, Reagan complained of chest pains. Both he and Parr assumed it was rib pain from having been violently shoved, and they took it for a non-life-threatening injury.
Parr had two choices before him: He could order the driver to return to the White House (as Reagan wanted), where the president’s physician could see to him under secure conditions. Or the limo could divert to a public hospital, a hugely risky thing to do spur-of-the-moment with the leader of the free world as the patient (and with no certainty that the shooter was working alone).
Parr chose correctly; the motorcade went to George Washington University Hospital, where it was discovered that Reagan had a bullet in him, and his life was very much in danger.
Reagan survived, and as thanks for making the right call, history forgot Jerry Parr.
But don’t forget: Parr had a 50 percent chance of being wrong. And if he’d chosen differently, we’d all know his name because conspiracy nuts to this day would be debating why he “killed Reagan.” Who was he working for? The Soviets? The Bushes? Skull and Bones? The Bilderbergers?
Because he made the right call, we can accept that Parr was acting in good faith. But had he made the wrong call, we’d expect a villain. We’d want a villain. President Reagan dying at arguably the most pivotal moment in the Cold War? No way that could have happened by mistake. No way that happened because of a coin toss decision.
Monumental things come about for grand reasons, orchestrated by grand players.
And so it must be with Covid. Readers of my Takimag column know that I’ve been on a bender recently regarding the right’s frustrating inability to accept the most likely (and most scientifically-supportable) scenario for how Covid came to be. That, just as with SARS, a naturally-occurring bat virus infected an intermediary animal that was sold in a festering wet market where a zoonotic spillover infected humans. That’s exactly what happened with SARS—bat virus, intermediary animal, spillover, and initial human infection cluster at a wet market. Covid is very closely related to SARS, and all evidence points to the same origin.
But whereas SARS was a minor threat (and therefore must have had a minor reason for being), Covid has stopped the earth. Covid has killed almost a hundred thousand people worldwide and decimated the U.S. economy. Rightists were happy making bat eating jokes and mocking the “filthy” Chinese back when Covid was an Asian problem. But now that it’s become an epochal event, only the grandest of explanations will suffice. Surely Covid was cooked up in a commie mad scientist’s lab, or perhaps in the lair of a genocidal James Bond villain like Ernst Blofeld or Hugo Drax. But a bunch of common Chinese selling wild animals in a stinking, filthy market slum? A bunch of scummy gluttons who take pride in the fact that they’ll eat anything that moves, and they’ll eat it raw? These people ravaged the world, just by eating animal testicles and anuses? No way, man. Next you’ll tell me that the entire course of history was nearly altered by a college dropout failed songwriter who wanted to impress a dyke actress.
So herein lies that other irony I mentioned. Asian actors decide to put on a play about how a bunch of insignificant losers with weird personal issues found a simple way to alter the course of human events. And the play gets canceled because a bunch of insignificant Asian losers with weird personal issues found a simple way to alter the course of human events.
Except the Chinese, unlike the assassins of Sondheim’s play, will likely get away with it. These human garbage disposals who gave the world SARS and then, with reckless indifference, ignored all warnings and gave the world Covid, will skate because they’re considered unworthy of the honor of being world-destroyers.
“Unworthy.” And once again we cycle back to Assassins. Sondheim taunts his characters with the fact that most of them were overcompensating for feelings of unworthiness. Booth, a colossal egotist, was haunted by the nagging belief that he didn’t measure up to his renowned brother and father. Hinckley felt unworthy of Jodie Foster’s love; Fromme felt unworthy of Manson’s, Czolgosz felt unworthy of Emma Goldman’s. Samuel Byck’s descent into homicidal madness began when the Small Business Administration told him he was unworthy of a loan.
In Assassins, the “unworthy” commit acts that may not have necessarily changed the world, but nevertheless cemented their names in history.
The Chinese wet market traders and customers have, without question, changed the world. Yet rightists are trying to deny them the immortality they deserve. In a way, the right is setting up its own Warren Commission, which will inevitably finger the wrong people for the sake of political expedience and of masturbatory ideological affirmation. And the “commission” will be bipartisan, because the left has the same desire to clear the Chinese people of the crime of assassination by coronavirus, since any attempt to claim that Chinese culinary practices are barbaric and dangerous is, of course, racist.
The assassins will get off scot-free, a happy ending that Sondheim’s play lacks.
Even though my tickets to the East West Players’ production of Assassins were refunded, I wouldn’t have squawked had I lost the money. Because even though I didn’t get a chance to see Asians reenacting past attempts to bring America to its knees, I’ve had the privilege of seeing it in real-time in real-life.
To paraphrase Pee Wee Herman, I don’t need to see Asian Assassins; I’ve lived it. We all have.
And the play’s not over yet.