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Growing Up in BFE

  Undergraduate Connie Li, who plays the character of Panny.

Undergraduate Connie Li, who plays the character of Panny.

By Lukas Woodyard

As the assistant director for BFE, I realize that working on this play has become a physicalized form of therapy. To reiterate a theme from our production of Detroit, BFE is also a state of mind common in American culture. BFE is also a derogatory acronym (“Bum F*** Egypt”) that refers to the middle of nowhere; a place or location that is somehow isolated from the rest of civilization. BFE is a place to be avoided, despised, or to escape. Many Americans currently reside in these places or are at least from them. Playwright Julia Cho found herself in such a place when she moved from Los Angeles to Arizona at a young age and I can’t help but think of my own migration from Northwest Indiana near Chicago to the woods and fields of central Georgia. In the play, Cho explores the isolation and delusion that is oftentimes associated with living in the middle of “Bum F*** Egypt,” but its poignancy comes from how it portrays the Asian-American experience. The isolation of adolescence and the struggles of familial relationships are themes common to individuals from all walks of life, but through the specific voice of a Korean-American playwright, BFE offers something wholly refreshing and unique. As someone who grew up in BFE, I get to see my story on stage.

For the purposes of this article, it is important to inform the reader that I am Japanese American. And while I have been working with this play for over a year now, the subject matter makes me feel as though I’ve been working with it my entire life. On the cusp of turning eight years old, my family moved to Georgia. Growing up here was interesting but definitely adhered to the stereotypical “backwoods” Georgia experience. One horror story comes to mind wherein senior high schoolers from my alma mater kidnapped a group of underclassmen for a senior prank, tied them up, blindfolded them, and left them in an abandoned shed in the middle of the woods. They were apparently left in the company of a rotting pig carcass as well. To quote BFE, “Things happen all the time here. Things you can’t explain.” As horrifying as that sounds, there’s something more horrifying about trying to discover your identity in these nowhere towns. Self discovery is standard to the human experience, but where you’re located geographically can leave you isolated from both your community and yourself. Individuals who stray from social norms are oftentimes labeled as “others.” And to be sure, the impact of of being labeled an “Other” is a form of abjection that can cause persistent damage throughout one’s lifetime. Julia Cho is very honest about this concept in BFE and, as an Asian American, that is becoming more and more apparent with each rehearsal.

In order to continue this article, I want to first say that I am not discrediting anyone’s experience. We all are different. We have all witnessed different things. This is merely my personal response to Cho’s work. When I state “we,” I am including myself alongside Asian Americans and any other individuals who have experienced the aforementioned experience of “Othering.” It all depends on context.

As previously mentioned, I have been working on BFE for a year, dramaturgically doing research and promoting it as, in my opinion, the most important show of our 2017-2018 season. Cho dramatizes three key themes in her show: internalized racism, double consciousness, and a progressive conditioning of “othering.” Stereotypes associated with Asian Americans fit within a binary of both positive and negative. We are intelligent, hard workers, but we are also often portrayed as submissive or sexually inferior to our white counterparts. I wish that I could go back in time and stop myself from buying in to such stereotypes. Both the positives and negatives were applied to me every day I went to school. My response to such stereotyping was to laugh it off while also leaning into it. How else was I supposed to be liked? As one of my history teachers once told me, Asian Americans are the best minorities in this country. At the risk of generalization, I feel that this kind of self-deprecation is common amongst Asian Americans as a means of gaining acceptance as a racial minority. Another complicated facet of any racial identity is the double consciousness that occurs. For most Asian Americans, there is an apparent connection to our “home” culture – our heritage or ethnicity – and our American identity. We are consciously aware of this duality and although it may seem nice to occupy more than one culture, the positionality of it can become isolating. From my experience, on top of being biracial, I never feel as though I am perceived as wholly American because of my Japanese identity or wholly Japanese because I am American. It can be a disquieting space to occupy.

These issues lead towards the overarching issue of “othering.” To explain it simply, “othering” comes from our societal obsession with binaries, whether positive or negative; man or woman; normal or abnormal, etc. With each of those listed, the former is the privileged position that is revered while the latter is the less-desirable attribute. “Bad”, “woman,” and “abnormal” occupy the space of the “Other” because they are not “good,” “man,” or “normal.” Regarding BFE (and race relations in general), the United States is place that still values the upholding of the “white standard” as the privileged position. You are either white or you are not. Those who fall in the “not” category simply do not receive an equal amount of privilege or opportunity. Cho includes examples of this social “othering” throughout the play. The characters look down upon themselves and remain in a comfortable stasis wherein they feel unworthy of the love and desire for which they yearn. Cho is unflinchingly honest in her writing about “otherness” and even uses the narrative thrust of storyline to lead the audience to believe that the characters are on the path to receiving the love and acceptance they so desperately desire. Without giving too much away, Cho painfully utilizes this expectation of fulfillment to make a far grander statement about the damaging effects of internalized racism, the double consciousness, and “otherness.” These characters want to escape the isolation that comes with living in the middle of “Bum F*** Egypt,” both literally and metaphorically. For me, that’s what it feels like to grow up in BFE.

We live in a time where representation matters and diverse side-characters in overall white narratives hardly pass muster anymore. True representation means including stories about “others” from “others.” And lest you think this is some esoteric proposal, I would recommend seeing Black Panther, recently named one of the highest-grossing films of all time. It is not only important for audiences to see representation in their entertainment, but to also become familiar with the lives and trials of marginalized characters and forgotten people. There is something in BFE for anyone from across the infinite spectrum of identities. Even outright ignoring the social and political importance of the play, it is still a darkly comedic show with flourishes of pure loveliness.

Julia Cho’s BFE is an important play and a superb production for our season, but it has also become a therapy session of sorts for me. The three main characters have become simulacrums of myself. With each passing rehearsal I recognize myself, my friends, and my own family as either a Panny, a Lefty, or an Isabel. Some days, I am Panny and some Lefty. Recently, I’ve been feeling like an Isabel but as of this writing, I’m leaning more toward Hae-Yoon. Notably, the common thread between all of these characters is a common thread in all of our lives, regardless of race, gender, religion, or class: we all want to escape our own isolation. We all want to get out of BFE.