Re-Spiced cabaret is a pastiche of East meets West / by R. Sheth

April 4, 2012
By Mike Thomas

What do rapper Ice Cube, folk singer Joan Baez, country crooner Toby Keith and 18th century Irish statesman Edmund Burke have in common?

The answer, as you probably guessed, is not much. But as “Re-spiced: A Silk Road Cabaret” (which runs through May 6) demonstrates, some of their works — Cube’s racially explosive “Black Korea,” Keith’s vengefully jingoistic “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue,” Baez’s freedom-championing “China” and Burke’s instructively imperialistic “Speech on Mr. Fox’s East India Bill” from 1783 — share a common thread: They’re all indictments of or commentaries on Asian or Middle Eastern subjects by Westerners.

A production of Chicago’s Silk Road Rising theater company, which showcases plays by Asian and Middle Eastern playwrights, “Re-Spiced” mirrors that dynamic.

“It’s really a look at how Westerners have imagined people of the Silk Road [the ancient trade route that connected the Far East, Middle East and Europe] and the countries of the Silk Road — for better and for worse,” says Jamil Khoury, who devised the cabaret-style creation.

Dressed in nondescript costumes and simply lighted, eight American performers of Asian, African and Middle Eastern descent sing and speak silly and serious compositions by Western authors, poets, musicians and orators about Silk Road people, politics and myriad other subjects. A keyboard and synthesizer underscore scenes and material that dates from the 12th century to modern-day. There’s even a sure-to-inspire-chair-grooving ’80s medley that includes “Walk Like an Egyptian,” “Turning Japanese,” “One Night in Bangkok,” “Rock the Casbah” and “Kung Fu Fighting.”

“It’s kind of a journey through all of these songs and places and ideas,” says director Steve Scott. “And so basically, in staging it, what I’ve tried to do is just make it flow rather seamlessly — it’s almost like a dream in some ways — from one thing to another. The way we have arranged it, there’s always something that kind of connects to the piece just before it and in some ways to the piece just after it. . . . It goes all over the place, but kind of in linear fashion.”

And so, for example, Baez’s rumination on the Chinese revolution in Tiananmen Square is preceded by a thematically related passage from Philip Pullman’s children’s novel The Amber Spyglass (“Being in love was like China: you knew it was there, and no doubt it was very interesting, and some people went there, but I never would”) and followed by a spoken-word segment from W. Somerset Maugham’s China-set novel “The Painted Veil.”

Although some of the selections are purposely polemical, Khoury says there’s a conscious dearth of preaching. Then again, showing is often much more effective than telling.

Here’s a for-instance: when someone who looks and sounds nothing like the beefy and unmistakably Caucasian Keith belts his boot-stomping 2002 anthem about America’s show of military might after the attacks of Sept. 11, it can’t help but take on a different tone and perhaps even an altered meaning. “Oh, justice will be served and the battle will rage,” goes one of the stanzas. “This big dog will fight when you rattle his cage/An’ you’ll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A./’Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way.”

Khoury, for one, finds the song “difficult to listen to. It’s a very vengeful song and I think it’s a very mean-spirited song. Some of the lyrics are really pretty harsh. So while we’re not trying to hit you over the head and say, ‘you should disapprove of this’ or ‘you should embrace this,’ we’re certainly positioning it in a place in the mix that’s definitely going to make you stop and think.”

For all its potentially teachable moments, however, “Re-Spiced” aims first and foremost to entertain.

Says Scott, hopefully, “That would be good.”