Unsettled Identities

'Mixed Messages' proves interesting, but it leaves a few too many conflicts unresolved

A man completely out of touch with his own parents becomes obsessed with the skull of what he believes to be a 9,000-year-old ancestor. A woman completely out of touch with her culture and anyone else's defends the skull from the man's reclamation efforts; she's a scientist determined to use the skull to learn about dead people, without having to interact with living people any more than necessary.

These competing agendas propel the action of Cherylene Lee's Mixed Messages, currently presented by Borderlands Theater. The title is perhaps more apt than Lee intends. Her play dabbles with issues of mixed-race and mixed-heritage populations in contemporary California, personal identity, ownership of culture and the legal rights to the remains of long-dead people. Lee presents the competing arguments even-handedly, but by the end of the play, she abandons those arguments to let the antagonists unite against a common enemy. The big legal issues not only go unresolved; they go missing.

A good play has to revolve around individuals, not issues, and Lee wisely tries to create an interesting pair of characters to move the argument forward. The more vividly imagined of the two is Jake Ramirez, mostly Hispanic but one-sixteenth Chumash Indian; he is an unofficial, unaffiliated cultural anthropologist looking for validation while dealing with some personal abandonment issues. Particularly as played by the cunning and sensitive Robert Encila, Jake sidesteps the clichés of the Angry Chicano Activist type (remember actor A Martinez?).

Less effectively drawn is physical anthropologist Wai Lin-Lawson, daughter of an English father and Chinese-Japanese mother, an ambitious one-year post-doc with a research grant based at a Los Angeles museum. She's cleaning out the office of her suddenly deceased mentor when Jake shows up to demand the repatriation of a 9,000-year-old skull, one of the museum's most treasured items, excavated nearly a century ago from the La Brea Tar Pits. To Wai, it's a valuable fossil; to Jake, it's a valued ancestor. Jake posits that under law, the museum must return what's left of La Brea Woman to his Chumash tribe ... assuming, that is, that she is genetically or culturally linked to the Chumash, with nine millennia between them.

As written by Lee, directed by Glen Coffman and acted by Wynee Hu, Wai starts out as little more than a generic, self-absorbed scientist. Hu gazes into the middle distance and prattles on about prehistoric tooth decay, looking like one of those little teenaged anime or manga heroines of uncertain ethnicity, bravely and a little boastfully setting off on some adventure that will involve exotic animals and aerial maneuvers, but no sex. That's pretty much what happens with her character, except for the aerial maneuvers.

Hu can't match Encila's sincerity and emotional honesty, yet she's much more effective in the scenes with Wai's parents, well played by Leilani Chan and Ron Richards. Perhaps it's that Hu, this early in her career, easily finds her way in parent-child relationship scenes but can't quite muster the authority required of a smart, intense character with a doctorate.

Both main characters share a disadvantage: They are not fully recognized by their respective establishments. Jake's case is more compelling and complex. According to a Chumash councilman (played with gentle humor by Hector Ayala), Jake's clan doesn't fall within the federal guidelines for recognition as part of the Chumash nation. Thus, Jake cannot be an enrolled member of the tribe, meaning that he can neither represent the Chumash in his crusade for the skull, nor, incidentally, share in the tribe's substantial casino earnings.

Jake doesn't care about the money, which befuddles an attorney he consults (the wisecracking but fairly low-key Suzanne Darrell). He somehow identifies with La Brea Woman; both were dumped, forgotten, dismissed.

There's a lot going on in this play, which is less about the conflicts between tribes and museums than about confused identity in our mongrel society. Through the play's first half, Lee has the supporting actors come out to describe their mixed heritages during scene changes (kudos to designer Fred Kinney for making good use of very few scenic elements). But after the fourth or fifth "My mother is Irish, German and Lithuanian, and my father is Cuban and Seminole," this becomes tiresome, and the actors have difficulty delivering their genealogies fluidly.

More interesting is Wai's theory that our cultural and ethnic melting pot may first have settled onto the North American campfire thousands of years ago, rather than in the past couple of hundred years. But Lee can't really develop that idea in a play like this; it's more important to figure out who's entitled to La Brea Woman's skull. Yet that bone of contention ultimately is forgotten. Distracted by the discovery of a common enemy, Jake and Wai never truly come to terms with each other, or resolve the conflict that has driven the action to this point.

Mixed Messages is an interesting play that could be better. Cherylene Lee gets distracted by the breadth of her intellectual curiosity; she needs to take a cold, dispassionate look at one more draft, like Wai measuring her fossils.

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