Generation Rise Review. Undesirable elements in this latest Ping Chong play about teens

“Generation Rise” is being presented live on stage at New Victory Theater through November 14, billed as a show in which six New York teens voice their own experiences growing up in a global pandemic – which isn’t precisely true.  

There is also a digital version, which is on demand through November 28. I prefer the digital version.

The documentary theater piece is the latest in a series entitled “Undesirable Elements,” which Ping Chong and Company began almost thirty years ago.  In the series, “real people,” most of whom have never performed on stage before, sit on chairs in a half-circle on stage and tell the stories of their lives – storytelling that has been shaped by the company after extensive interviews. Usually the half dozen or so cast members fit some focused demographic. I’ve seen an Undesirable Elements show in which the cast was all disabled; another, survivors of sexual abuse;  a third, refugees; and, the latest one before now, in 2019, New York teenagers who are foreign-born or the children of immigrants. It was called “Generation NYZ” 

“Generation Rise” follows the same formula and features more or less the same demographic, New York teenagers, as  “Generation NYZ,” and presents similar touching and inspiring moments. But it doesn’t as completely win me over; it’s still terrific, just not as terrific. This is not because it feels like a rerun (although it sometimes does.) It’s largely because the artifice of the stage production undermines the supposedly central mission of the enterprise: authenticity. I say this, above all, because three of the six “teenagers” are portrayed on stage by professional actors. But that’s not the only reason. 

Now, there is an understandable explanation for why the company has gone pro like this. “Generation Rise” was initially put together during the lockdown, and presented in a virtual production in the Spring of 2021. (That’s the production that’s available on demand.) Several of the teenagers who performed online couldn’t or wouldn’t appear on stage in person (no specific reasons publicly given, presumably to protect their privacy.) Two of those “characters” are simply omitted from the stage version, but three are being portrayed by the pros.

I have nothing against professional actors, of course. All six of the people on stage are appealing. But it’s just not the same. It made me wonder, for one, why they still need the more rigid ritual-like aspects of a Ping Chong play – to pick one of several examples, that each segment is punctuated by the casts clapping together rhythmically exactly five times. I figured the point of these formulaic elements was to provide a structure that helped enliven the non-performers’ delivery, which tends to be, let’s say, low-key. (Are the professional actors pretending to be inexperienced speakers?)

“Generation Rise” starts with the six telling us where and when they were born, mostly in 2003, and then advancing year by year through a variety of anecdotes – about their families, about their schooling — some of which will be of particular interest to people their same age, or those who have grown up in New York. When Singapore-born Serena (one of the actual teenagers) got into Hunter College Middle School at age 12, one of her teachers told her: “At Hunter there are three things: your grades, your sleep, and your social life. Pick two.” (It’s one of the characters, Nathaniel, portrayed by  professional actor Matthew Martinez, who recites the line from the teacher. Having one of the six briefly portray a character in the life of one of the other six is another standard element in these Ping Chong plays, and among the most desirable.)

It’s more compelling that Serena is actually Serena when she tells the story of  her coming out – “I’ve never even said I’m queer to myself before, but it just comes out of my mouth” – because we realize she’s brave enough to be sharing publicly this private moment about herself. (It’s to protect the privacy of the real teens that we’re given only their first names.)

When “Nathaniel” offers a poem about his having overcome many challenges in mastering language as a member of the debate team —

“Ask me who I am and I’ll tell you I don’t know in four different languages three accents and 10 different ways cause I got it like that
I was born in translation
A deaf household
A Latinx household
English speaking
My speech is a weapon….”

–it’s when the real Nathaniel online recited this poem he wrote that I teared up.

It takes until about halfway through the 75-minute running time until we get to the year 2020, and the pandemic, followed by the racial reckoning. There are moments that, no matter how familiar and expected, are undeniably effective.

Kilhah: Broadway shuts down

Nathaniel: Libraries shut down 

Johanni: Museums shut down 

Kenroy: Restaurants shut down 

Serena: Schools shut down

Sanaa: New York City shuts down. 

Serena: Suddenly, there are new rules. 

Nathaniel: Wash your hands. 

Johanni: Don’t touch your face. 

 Kilhah: Stay six feet apart. 

Serena: Wear a mask. 

Sanaa: Stay home. 

Nathaniel: Suddenly, there are new words 

Serena: Social Distance?

Sanaa: Flatten the Curve?

Kilhah:  Quarantine?

Johanni: Essential workers? 

Kenroy: Pandemic?

Serena: Suddenly, everyone needs 

Kilhah: Hand Sanitizer 

Johanni: Gloves 

Sanaa: Lysol

ALL: Toilet Paper!! 

Although the play implicitly makes the claim that these characters’ take on the pandemic and the racial reckoning is special because of the generation to which they belong, in truth many people of all ages had (and are having) similar experiences.

In a program note, the two directors and co-writers of the piece, Sara Zatz and Kirya Traber, more or less acknowledge this – and turn it around as all the more reason to focus on the teenagers:

“…many adults were finding themselves in an unfamiliar state of not just restriction, but also deep self-reflection, and a radical re-evaluation of our world and our roles in it. And it struck us how similar that state is to that of adolescence. These are pressures that we expect, even encourage, in our teen years, but often ‘leave behind’ for a sense of stability and certainty that we call adulthood.”

At the end of “Generation Rise,” the six young adults on stage take turns sharing a final message: “I want the world to know that my voice matters… And every one of us has a story to tell….We do not speak for them all…But we honor those who can’t speak by sharing our stories.”

It’s dramatic. It’s inspirational. But I dwelled on the sentence: “We do not speak for them all.” I had recently read what I hope will be a game-changing article in the New Yorker magazine by Louis Menand entitled: “It’s time to stop talking about generations.” 

“The discovery that you can make money marketing merchandise to teen-agers dates from the early nineteen-forties, which is also when the term “youth culture” first appeared in print. …” Even before then, the idea was planted that “people born within a given period, usually thirty years, belong to a single generation. There is no sound basis in biology or anything else for this claim…”

I would have liked “Generation Rise” better if it didn’t so thoroughly buy into the notion (despite the caveat in the final message) that one can and should generalize about people born around the same year, or even that “youth culture” has anything unique to tell us. A less grand title, at least, would have helped.

It’s quite possible that most theatergoers will share none of my rather airy reservations.  For one thing, the likely audience at New Victory, a theater whose productions are primarily geared towards young people,  might know nothing of Ping Chong’s previous works, and not care; they will only see peers on stage.  The elation was certainly palpable opening night at New Victory. Granted the audience was sparse – most of the seats were empty, covered by a cloth sign “For your safety, do not sit in marked seats.” But this is actually an argument in its favor, in marked contrast (along with the $25 ticket price) to the shoulder-to-shoulder Broadway shows I’ve been attending for the past couple of months. 

There’s another reason why I recommend the digital production over the one in person. It’s available for captioning in English, Arabic, Chinese, Korean and Spanish, as well as to watch with sign interpretation or listen with audio description – none of which is available (although it should be!) in the theater.

Generation Rise
New Victory in person through Nov 14 (on demand virtually through Nov 28)
Running time: 75 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $25
Co-writer and Co-director
Sara Zatz and Kirya Traber
Serena, Johanni, Kilhah

Performing for Nathaniel
Matthew Martinez

Performing for Sanaa
Kayla Bennett

Performing for Kenroy
Manny Dunn

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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