Thursday, April 24, 2014
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Illusion Theater plays against stereotypes
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Director Ping Chong (center) rehearses with the cast of "Undesirable Elements: Ten Years Later" (MPR Photo/Toni Randolph)
The United States has been called a big melting pot because of its rich immigrant history. But things are often difficult for people newly-arrived in the U-S.The Illusion Theater in downtown Minneapolis explores the mixed reception immigrants and other minorities have received in its latest production "Undesirable Elements: Ten Years Later."

Minneapolis, Minn. — "Undesirable Elements" is a journey through history. It starts in the 1830s and makes its way to the present day, highlighting events along the way that have had an impact on the seven members of the cast. And the cast isn't made up of fictional characters played by actors. These are real people, telling their own stories.

There's a Russian Jew, a Puerto Rican, an Ojibwe woman, an African-American, a Hmong woman, a Filipino and an American of Chinese descent. The latter is Ping Chong, an award-winning theater director and choreographer who created the show.

"I was inspired to make this work because I feel that in America despite the fact that we're a land of immigrants historically, from the very beginning, there's a great deal of stereotyping in this country. And I wanted to address that in a climate in which people feel threatened by difference," he said.

In the '60s and '70s there was optimism...but I feel we're sliding backwards right now.
- Ping Chong

Chong staged the show 10 years ago at Illusion Theater. Then, it was called "Undesirable Elements." This show, which features almost all of the same actors, is an update, "Undesirable Elements: Ten Years Later."

Chong says stereotyping has been an on-going problem in the United States.

"In the '60s and '70s there was optimism, about things changing and we're going to be more accepting and so on and so forth. But I feel we're sliding backwards right now. It's important to keep addressing that for Americans to live together in a more realistic and more accepting way of each other," he says.

The script weaves a tapestry from the people's lives, telling their stories of racism and discrimination.

Forty-five-year-old Alberto Panelli is from Puerto Rico. He talks about coming to Minnesota for the first time in 1977 to register for college. He was given a form where he had to check off his ethnicity. He said he'd never seen such a form before because in Puerto Rico everyone's Puerto Rican.

"It was kind of hard when I first came to Minnesota, dealing with this because I didn't know. I felt so inferior. I didn't understand. Now I'm more prepared," he said.

"Undesirable Elements" doesn't just deal with discrimination in the United States. Ariada Magaril is a 79-year old Russian Jew. During World War II, she was living in Odessa, Ukraine, part of the former Soviet Union. In "Undesirable Elements," she talks about the fear the war brought and of the hatred that followed in its aftermath.

Magaril now lives in the United States. She's been here since 1992. She says she jumped at the chance to participate in the original production of "Undesirable Elements" in 1995 and the update, "Ten Years Later" because she wants people to know what others have lived through.

"I wanted them to learn about my life, why I was undesirable in my country. I wanted them to know that they must not take everything for granted, that people all around the world live another kind of life," she said.

"Undesirable Elements" has been staged in other U.S. cities and cities around the world. It's even been adapted for use in diversity training for corporations. Ping Chong says he hopes that not only is it a work of theater, it's also become a civic dialogue.

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