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Theater Tue Apr 17 2012

Silk Road Rising's Re-Spiced: A Silk Road Cabaret Stirs up Eastern Stereotypes


left to right: Danny Bernardo, Dipika Cherala, Joel Kim Booster, Evan Tyrone Martin, Amira Sabbagh, Christine Bunuan, Jaii Beckley and Joyee Lin. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

As I watched Re-Spiced: A Silk Road Cabaret in all its subtle magnificence unfurl, my mind clicked with alternate subversive titles, like Where Do These Westerners Come up With These Crazy-A** Ideas About My People, Anyway?, and It's a White Supremacist Manifest Destiny World, After All! I quickly regained my critical focus, shaking off those alternative titles, deeming both too long to fit a marquee.

Where do the most insidious and more detrimental stereotypes get their staying power? Borders are redrawn, people mix and migrate, but ethnic and cultural stereotypes die hard, for they serve the purpose to define and divide us, and there is eternal afterlife for any given stereotype that is put to song and dance. For a few weeks, the Silk Road players run through a millennium of pop production, delivered in cheery and worthwhile song and dance cabaret in faux nightclub setting that makes an audience member bop and weave to the beat of great performances that makes one almost forget that they've spent the living years grooving to the beat of global-scale racial oppression with the Monroe Doctrine as our sheet music.

The night's 40-song and prose repertoire opens with "Arabian Nights" from Disney's 1992 Aladdin. Ensemble members ebb and flow between sanguine and sublime exhaustion of having to live through the weighty lyrics like "...Where they cut off your ear if they don't like your face. It's barbaric, but hey, it's home..."

Musical Director Ryan Brewster makes seamless choices in reminding the audience that our cultural appetite for the "mysterious and dangerous" East has been and continues to be whetted by voices as varied as Noel Coward ("Mad Dogs & Englishmen") and Walt Whitman ("A Broadway Pageant"), Peter Cetera ("Scheherazade") and Ricky Nelson ("Travelin' Man"), Rogers & Hammerstein ("Bali Hai') and Ice Cube ("Black Korea"). There are party pop medleys including "Walk Like and Egyptian" and "Rock the Casbah"; and the war mashup of "Killing an Arab" and "I Bombed Korea." An evening crammed with lyrical and spoken word cannot help but bring up memories in all; I remembered as a tot watching Nelson croon his "Travelin' Man" on an Ozzie & Harriet rerun. Maybe only about 7 years old, I remembered my lament in carefully listening and wondering why Ricky never made it to Africa (uh, thank God, I guess). Ensemble member Evan Tyrone Martin boy-band melts into Weezer's "Across the Sea," and it's a total hoot as Jaii Beckley, Dipika Cherala and Christine Bunuan drag and tug Martin into the pit of gooey bubblegum fun. Then the memories of Eddie Money's Rolling Stone confession of the chagrined complexity of on-tour sleepovers with Japanese schoolgirls. Too much spice and pass the Pepto, please. Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue" becomes the pure redneck farce growled out loud and defiant by Bunuan. Later in the evening I wondered if "Courtesy..." was on the soundtrack rotation the head of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales as he massacred 17 Afghan villagers, including nine children. Some patriotic Hallmark card, huh?

The songs reflect the Western myopia of the "East," in its entire designation. The men are barbaric and murderous, the women are sexually willing and home-ec useful. Their children will grow up and assume their current positions, come generation upon generation, we've been told, and continue to be told. It's as if Disney and Hollywood are the Halliburton and Black Water of New World Order entertainment.

But we're revived, and there is affirmation that if all is not well, there is certainly defiance in Kinky Friedman's "They Ain't Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore," Jerry Herman's "Shalom," and Alanis Morisette's "Thank U," and the quiet and powerful determination in the Yehuda Halevi prose "My Heart is in the East."

Indeed, it's a Re-Spiced deliverance, and we're vividly serenaded out of our allspice dreams of malaise and long-gone "familiarity" of The Formerly Known as the Orient, and into a new blend of voices that should and hopefully tell us what "home" really means -- past and future.

Re-Spiced: A Silk Road Cabaret continues though May 6 at Pierce Hall at The Historic Chicago Temple Building, 77 W. Washington St. Tickets are $30 for regular performances. For tickets and information, visit

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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