Staging Another Stage
"I'm the One that I Want," the live concert at the Warfield Theater, begins with Margaret Cho running out onto the stage to thunderous applause, sustained through her waving at the crowd, taking a deep bow, and thanking San Francisco for such a profuse welcome. She shouts, "It's so good to be home!" Cho, no doubt, refers to San Francisco, but one might also take the stage, itself, to be her "home." Tellingly, that stage is bare, but for a stool and water. The puns here are deliberate, for no convention mandates the reading of the stage scenery realistically; one can interpret them symbolically and punningly, a kind of set joke. Stool and water, then, are framed by deep red, velvet curtains in the background, and another, more down-stage set of gold mesh-like curtains tied back as lavish window-dressing for the performance space, a performance space that has been set with objects collectively signaling the abject. During the act, Cho never sits on the stool; she uses it as a small table for her water. The only other prop in the act - if it can be called that - is the wireless microphone that Cho wields as she bounces and struts across the stage.
After bowing and thanking the audience for coming, Cho begins her act by talking about another performance on her tour, a benefit for PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), where fashion designer, Karl Lagerfeld, is being protested for including fur in his last show:
I love Karl Lagerfeld and they hate him. . . . They protested his last show. People were chanting, "Karl Lagerfeld is a murderer! Karl Lagerfeld is a murderer!" And I thought, wouldn't it be fabulous if Karl Lagerfeld actually was a murderer? Like what if he just fucking lost it one day, backstage at his show in Milan, and bludgeoned Elsa Klensch to death with a platform shoe. "I hate that blouse!" He would have to go to jail, and they would make him wear the orange jumpsuit. I would call Amnesty International myself if that happened.
The performance, in short, begins with the staging of another stage, more specifically the street spectacle outside the couture show. The PETA organizers' outrage at the fashion designer's encouraging slaughter for fashion becomes a true "crime of fashion" (that orange jumpsuit!) - in essence, turning outrage into camp. Here, and throughout her written memoir, Cho tells stories about the spillage of theater into spaces outside of itself, taking place in rituals of antagonism (Turner) and even in disciplinary spaces through which the knowledge-power nexus of the state exercises its capillary power (Foucault).
For instance, as the routine progresses, Cho imagines, via the fashionista's presence in jail, the prison itself as theater space.
[The jailers] would take away his fan. He would be on the pay phone to André Leon Talley, "André, could you send me a fan? Could you bake it in a cake? Or stick it up your ass or zomething? I need a fan, right away." He has to make one out of spoons. [Cho purses her lips and fans herself frenetically]
The comedic force, here, emerges from staging the absurd incongruities between the limitations of prison life and the extravagances of the fashion world (having to design a fan out of spoons!). Outright, she performs, in absurd fashion, the consequences of Karl Lagerfeld's criminalization by PETA - he might end up in jail, due to using beaver-skin trim in his next line. But implied, as well, is another unspoken, but historically more likely, criminalization of the designer, not due to his use of fur, but because - as Cho states unapologetically - "Karl Lagerfeld is such a faggot." By putting Karl Lagerfeld ludicrously in jail (in the basement/prison), Cho dramatizes what happens legally through anti-sodomy laws. She makes the law ludicrous for its criminalizing of a minority identity, that of the homosexual. Moreover, her "faggot" in jail foreshadows her own imprisonment in the family's basement, with Cho making explicit the cross-identifications between herself and the profanity, "fag." She mimics him, "I am fanning the flames of my faggotry," but then qualifies her terminology, "I love the word faggot, because it describes my kind of guy. I [beat] am a fag hag. Fag hags [beat] are the backbone of the gay community." Her prison schtick establishes another claim of interdependence: fag and fag hags are the backbone of the straight community. Their abasement, the punishment and sequestering of these subjectivities, elevates heternormativity to the parlor.
Cho's talent is to theatricalize or see the performative and spectatorial exchanges in everyday life, but especially in mass settings of consumption and leisure (e.g., the Haagen-Daaz ice cream parlor where two of her drag-queen friends stage guerilla theater, and Korean Methodist Youth Camp where a psychological and physical wrestling match between Margaret and the rest of the campers ensues). In her book as well as in her subsequent live concert, "The Notorious C.H.O," the comedienne tells of actual theater spaces - theaters of cruelty (e.g., an S & M performance in New York) where actors surround the audience, making them the live bait of their sadistic acts (77-80). As these experiments in environmental theater become more life-like (defying the set boundaries between performers and spectators, occupying quotidian settings), so does life resemble theater, or perhaps the stage of the stand-up performance becomes a way to redirect the everyday theaters of cruelty (e.g., Youth Camp) and to retard collision with their degrading force, by simultaneously erecting and missing them.
Cho performs this simulatenous erecting and missing of degradation in her own rumination over her sexual identity and, more significantly, the leakiness of the categories gay and straight. Cho stages her own liminal position between sexual identity categories: "Am I gay? Am I straight? I'm just slutty. [beat] Where's my parade?" These lines query not only how we might make the space of Asian American queer citizenship, but in what registers and styles - through what performative rituals, carnivalesque spectacles, and collective walks through town - will the full citizenship of a "Korean American, fag hag, shit starter, girl comic, trash talker" be entertained?
Cho's book and performance, in short, point us not to a telos to her temporal narrative (the sex act/social act [lesbian intercourse or the wedding] that will decide her identity once and for all) but to spaces of social process that reveal identificatory categories of the body as leaky. She directs our attention to the gay life of Polk Street (in San Francisco) that doubles as a site for staging guerilla theater; the performative space of drag queen wrestling contests and the (similarly agonistic) space of Korean (Christian youth) "camp;" the travelogue of seedy hotels marking the entertainer's touring schedule, and the taxidermic (ethnographic, exotic and decidedly, non-contemporary) set of Hollywood's first Asian American family sit-com; and finally, the spaces of bodily excess and breakdown: the hospital, the gym, the wet bed, the death bed - all sites Cho recalls in her comedy act. Through these various spaces, Cho constructs bodily excess as a kind of spatial allegory for the contact zones between First World and Third World, between normative versus abject citizenship and sexuality, and between the modern subject of history (whom Cho constructs as both boring and salvific) and a primitive, promiscuous yet also rejected savage who wavers between being locked in an uncivilized past and being the best survivor in a postmodern jungle of guerilla performances. In other words, Cho is not showing the primitive as the subject and space who must give way to the future (i.e., the postmodern, urbane subject who can make it in America); rather, the force of her art emerges from this confusion of times and spaces, and ultimately the throwing into question of both the U.S.'s mythic separateness from primitive time and space, and of the nation as an adequate containment of such diva-spaces - of high drama and excess, and of the abject stood up.