Who’s Racing Whom?: A Review of Eisenberg’s Asuncion
In performances like in life, you have come to expect certain behaviors from various races, ethnicities and cultures, haven’t you? Of course, we all have. And in this familiar paradox of assumptions turned prejudice, turned assumptions again, the play Asuncion plays on our sense of sheepish ignorance—sometimes malicious and often funny—at racism, sexism and other socio-political constructs. In fact, one of the many well-chosen famous phrases quoted in the play is M.L.K. Jr.’s words that nothing is more dangerous than sincere ignorance.
Jesse Eisenberg (nominated for best actor by the Academy in 2009 for The Social Network) wrote and stars in the comical play about a neurotic undergraduate named Edgar who lives with his former TA Vinny, a White guy who majored in Black Studies (Jason Bartha). The play is named for a young and beautiful Filipino woman (Camille Mana) who comes to live with the two guys in their off-campus apartment in Binghamton, NY. Why? The woman has just married Edgar’s older brother, Stuart (Remy Auberjonois). As you will come to know, Stuart’s character is the voice of reconciliation, bringing forth the plot’s racial epiphany, while his brother Edgar reinforces prejudice throughout the plot’s development.
The trope of ignorance channeled through the quote by King has its origins in the ego of Edgar who apologizes for being beaten and robbed by Black thugs because it must be hard for them to exist and who accuses the Filipino Asuncion of being a sex slave because she is from a poor country. Not only does Edgar refuse to see the very beautiful Asuncion as more than her sex, but he often confuses her nation with Cambodia. Apparently, Edgar spent two days in Cambodia by accident, one of his many signs of misdirection and immaturity. Earlier, I called Edgar’s issue ego. But it is one of the foibles of language (or my limitations of language) to refer to Edgar’s ego when his existence, like all of ours, is the product of societal norms. I am just not convinced anymore of agency when even our resistance—as subversive as it is and will always be—happens within perpetual racial contexts. Why the gloom and doom? Because the play’s funniest line, which is perpetually spoken by all but one character and in various nuisances by each them, happens at the expense of a large Black woman.
I want some mutherfuckin’ OJ! and Where my mutherfuckin’ OJ? are funny fucking lines, funny enough to make me want to curse (note fucking), adding mutherfuckin’ to the simplest desires. And who doesn’t love a good laugh or a hearty blue word? But the problem is that Asuncion (gesturing to extend her hips for added girth) tells us that the woman is large and Black. As it were, a larger body shape is a cultural inscription of Black women. So much so that on many occasions I have heard thinner Black women remark on wanting hips in the same gesture Asuncion makes. So largeness is not necessarily bad, making the comment a whether benign comment in its own right. Right? No.
The problem is that the conversation Eisenberg is trying to evoke is not properly set up. The ideas of a Filipino sex slave, Black thugs with White victims and a large Black woman wanting OJ are not properly weighed against the scale that holds Edgar’s slap on the wrist for his young and conscientious stupidity. This slap occurs in one of the last scenes of the play. Edgar’s brother, Stuart says that White people have done several terrible things throughout history, implying that Edgar’s behavior toward Asuncion has a long precedence. As narrative plots go, this is the denouement. Edgar’s immaturity and downright racist, sexist treatment of Stuart’s new bride forces him, if not shames him, into leaving the country, again. I believe that Eisenberg thinks that Stuart’s slap on Edgar’s wrist and Stuart’s one line about white colonization do equalize the weight of the varying ethnic situations of the play.
For all of the layered social commentary on having a Humanities education and urban living, I see the writer Eisenberg’s racial whimsy as explicitly as I see his character Edgar’s. This whimsy has to do with progress in race relations or the post-racial politics that gained momentum in 2008, but dropped off, as I see it, around the time that Obama invited Dr. Henry Louis Gates and Sergeant James Crowley to the White House. I was never a prospect of the post-racial philosophy. For one, it is almost impossible to construct equality in terms of race because it is inherently a matter of difference. In the play, racial and sexual roles are reinforced and magnified instead of reduced and subverted as the play’s theme suggests. Instead of an idiot being called an idiot for his assumptions, a white idiot is being called an idiot about valid assumptions—his racial and sexual othering. Edgar is validated, exonerated even, by his sincere ignorance. The racial authority in the play, the person with the learned and empirical knowledge and who speaks the MLK quote about ignorance (and quotes Malcolm X many times) is Vinny. And this authority figure is the initiator of the antics regarding the large black woman. Is not his ignorance just as sincere as Edgar’s, though he chose to study a culture other than his own purposely not accidentally? In the end, Edgar does not leave the country; his roommate, Vinny, talks him into staying to grade more undergraduate papers.
As we were walking to the train from the theatre, my Filipino friend said to me “As if all Filipino woman are sex slaves.” Asuncion had the same reaction in the play, but it didn’t matter; Edgar was convinced. What my friend is saying is that If stories allow us to get to know one another, then who is she to this audience?
This review is not a strike against White people writing about race. At least, I hope it’s not a strike; there is always that blind spot (the one that I am accusing Eisenberg of). White people should write about race. It should help debunk rumors that they are the race-less people that we racial people must strive to be. Instead of White-bashing, I hope that this is a gloom and doom report: There is no post-racial existence. Always doubt it. Run from folks who discuss it, but send them a drunken text or instant message berating their sincerely ignorant bullshit.
Asuncion is playing off-broadway at the Cherry Hill Theatre until December 18.
Z– I was definitely uncomfortable when Asuncion muttered the ‘mutherfuckin oj’ line. Sunny, simple Asuncion — a Filipina who liked the U.S. because it was a ‘pop song nation’ — gyrated her hips and poked fun at a large Black woman whom she and Vinny encountered earlier at a convenience store. In doing so, did she absorb the sincere ignorance of her White hosts? Was she just recycling the racism that had been handed down to Filipinos by their Spanish and American colonizers? But at least she was present to refute Edgar when he insisted that she was a sex slave, and the audience ends up seeing how ridiculously racist and sexist Edgar is. There was no large Black woman or any other Black character in the play who could tell off either Asuncion or Vinny when they delivered the ‘oj’ jokes. Vinny was a Black Studies major; yet with all that education and social awareness, he really had no empathy with people he studied, and there was no Black point of view represented. So when the ‘oj’ line was uttered several times, members of the audience laughed, but who or what were they laughing at?
Thanks much for such an enlightening comment! I am particularly interested in your rhetorical reference to Asuncion as “simple.” Simple characters are not surprising or problematic for their simpleness, but when their identity is crucial to their simple characterizations, then the great question that ended your comment will lurk as a kind of thematic shadow.