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Nasty words, wicked fun

Ethnic slurs and prejudices are held up for laughs in a daring, popular student production that was born from experience.

March 21, 2004|Hugh Hart | Special to The Times

On a cold Wednesday night in February, a line of students snakes around UCLA's Freud Playhouse, waiting to see "N*gger Wetb*ck Ch*nk."

The student production has sold out every performance since its debut last May by attracting people like Jin Cai, a 24-year-old mechanical engineering student who'd never been to a play before. Cai heard about it from his roommate. Sitting in the 568-seat auditorium next to him is Pablo Rebis, a 25-year-old political science major. "I think people understand the meaning of the name -- that it's just a stereotype," he notes.

Minutes later the lights dim, and audience members are bombarded with stereotypes during the show's opening moments. Rafael Agustin makes his entrance decked out in cholo muscle shirt and pleated pants, followed by Miles Gregley, who struts on stage in full pimp mode complete with plumed hat. Allan Axibal joins the procession playing the neatly dressed "model minority."

As they chant racial slurs, the actors are greeted not by bricks or rotten tomatoes but by gales of laughter. This audience is in on the joke, and over the next hour and a half, the show saps those slurs of their pejorative power through a succession of group scenes and comedic monologues in which the actors recount personal encounters with racial typecasting.

UCLA theater professor Jose Luis Valenzuela, the performers' faculty advisor, says the show has become a grass-roots phenomenon. "People are hungry for an experience of this kind because [most] theater is so noninclusive," he says. "When students see this show, they feel free because they realize we have to freely speak about these taboos, and that's what creates that release."

Valenzuela, who plans to present the show next month at the Los Angeles Theatre Center under the auspices of the Latino Theater Company, says that during his 10 years at UCLA he's never seen a stage production hit home with such force. "The audience so identifies with these issues in their daily life, and now they're finally all together -- 500 people together in a room -- and they're able to laugh about it or cry about it or think about it.

"Young people want to discuss these racial issues from different perspectives, but the theater has abandoned them. That's what makes this piece so powerful."

Enthusiasm and outrage

The three young "NWC" stars, all students at UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television, are of course thrilled -- even flabbergasted -- at the ruckus surrounding their little three-man show. Gathered with his costars at Agustin's apartment across the street from the UCLA campus, Gregley says, "The first time we performed it together was really scary, because you're putting your own work forward. I was backstage going, 'I love you guys -- if I faint and die on stage, just know that.' Then we went out there, and the response was ridiculous. People were laughing way too hard. We were like, 'They must be lying to us.' "

Agustin jumps in: "Last November, people stood in the rain for two hours to watch us! People were literally breaking down the doors so they could see the play."

Not surprisingly, the show's incendiary title has sparked outrage in some quarters. "A lot of people have been upset with the posters," Axibal admits. "What's really weird is the people who will rip only off 'n*gger' from the flier, or they'll rip off 'wetb*ck' or 'ch*nk,' as if to say, 'I don't like that you're calling me "wetback," ' but it's OK if you call them 'chink.' Another time, someone crossed out all the words and wrote 'Cracker Cracker Cracker.' They automatically assume this show is from some white person who's just bashing minorities.

"People ask us all the time, 'Why did it have to be these words? Couldn't you just call it "African American/Latin American/Chinese?" ' My answer to that is, why not these words? What is it that people are so afraid of? It's a shame that someone's day is ruined if they see a poster of ours. When people are offended it's because of their own experiences they've had with these words. We're not out to offend anyone, and we're not using these words against people. When the three of us got together, the title just came and it was perfect: These are the words we've been dealing with our whole lives."

It's not surprising that the show's pro-diversity message has struck a nerve at UCLA, where the student body is roughly 32% Asian, 36% Caucasian, 13% Chicano/Latino, 4% African American and 15% other groups. Dr. Robert J. Naples, UCLA dean of students, rates race relations at the school as "pretty good" but cautions that the passage of Proposition 209, which effectively prohibited affirmative action, has had an impact on the school. "Over the past few years, our numbers of students of color has diminished," he says. "I think the potential is there to cause a little bit more tension around race relations, although we haven't seen too much of it yet, because students of color feel there's fewer of them."

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