Review: Papa, a fantastical biography of Hall Lee, grandfather, father, draftsperson, chef

Frances Dell Bendert, Arnold Y. Kim, and Bailey Lee. Photos by Renee Rosensteel.

Continuing Recital’s sponsored partnership with the New Hazlett Theater, we are presenting a series of editorially-independent previews and reviews of the 2021–22 Community Supported Art (CSA) Performance Series. Below is our review of Papa by Bailey Lee, a collaborative response from Recital editor David Bernabo and guest panelist Ariel Xiu. Read their bios at the end of the review.

By David Bernabo

In Papa, writer, co-creator, and performer Bailey Lee immortalizes her grandfather, her papa, Hall Lee, with an ode to his life, told through a fictionalized excavation of personal memories, family stories, and the kind of exaggerations that make stories worth passing down through generations. The play–tightly scripted and performed–is a touching look at sacrifice and dedication to one’s family. Impeccable set and sound design along with vivid video projections match a trio of impressive performers. Surreal jumps into genre experiments break up what might otherwise be a gentle, tension-less story. In researching the past and contextualizing it in the present, Bailey Lee presents two stories–an evolving biography of Hall Lee and a near-coming of age tale of the character Bailey Lee.

The New Hazlett Theater’s CSA series can be viewed as an experimental platform. It often allows an artist to test out ideas on a stage that is larger and more professional than the last place they performed. This often results in performances that could use a layer or two of refinement. But that’s kind of the point. Our review panel, which has been in action since 2016, has certainly had a preference for the risky, the adventurous, and the weird. Failure is perfectly acceptable; encouraged, even. That said, there are performances that premiere with nary a flaw, where the execution of the concept easily earns a bevy of those 100% emojis. I would add Papa to this short list.

The cast of Lee (playing a fictionalized version of herself, among others), Arnold Y. Kim (Papa/Hall Lee, others), and Frances Dell Bendert (Mom, others), under the direction of Coleman Ray Clark, are phenomenal, each mastering a number of characters within Papa’s lengthy script. These roles require the ability to convey grief, love, admiration, and insecurity, all while delivering slapstick physical comedy and mustering a few tears in this review panel’s eyes.

At the age of 15, Hall Lee left the farmlands of China for McKeesport, PA, then a city that thrived on the manufacturing of steel. He worked in his father’s restaurant, until it was knocked down by the city to make way for a mall that was never built. Hall then enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh, studied engineering, and later worked as a draftsperson at Westinghouse. We learn about these plot points as Bailey does. Some of Hall’s history is revealed through dialogue between characters and some of it happens when the various characters take turns delivering monologues. Over the duration of the play’s non-linear story, we also see scenes of Bailey’s parents, learn of her father’s passing, and get a glimpse into her father’s private thoughts via his notebooks. These historical revelations reveal intergenerational tensions like managing expectations of parent and child, all while navigating the pressure to assimilate in the predominantly (and, literally, oppressively) White culture of America.

The play picks and chooses where detail goes. Papa’s apartment, designed Lindsay Goranson, holds exquisite detail. We see the electric burners on the oven, notes tacked on the wall, and family photos resting between two candles on a dresser. A kitchen table merges into a living room by way of an armchair. Hung rectangular panels of homey oranges and soft reds, allow the space to be abstracted to some extent–letting one’s imagination fill in the blanks–while also doubling as video projection screens. It’s a very well-considered design, and makes the setting of Papa’s apartment come to life. Alternately, the city of McKeesport is frequently mentioned, but it never really feels distinct from some other town that is foreign to the viewer. I’ve been a Pittsburgher all my life, but can count the number times I’ve visited McKeesport on one hand. It feels like the playmakers presume that the audience has prior knowledge of McKeesport–knowledge about the sense of community that exists in McKeesport or possibly the boom and bust nature of its steel industry, a trend that defines so many towns around Pittsburgh and in the Rust Belt. McKeesport is presented as a vital character, but I’m not sure why other than factual circumstance.

The phrase, “show, don’t tell” comes to mind when watching Papa. Very early in the play, we see Papa silently preparing his house for a visiting Bailey. We hear the boiling water and see Papa lining up the ingredients to make pork wontons. It’s a quiet scene even though Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach” is blasting in the background for part of it (more on that below.) When Bailey enters, wonton assembly begins. Papa taps into his wonton muscle memory as Bailey cultivates a new skill. Neither actor anticipates the movement; they are merely living on stage. Soon, we learn that Bailey is vegan. The pork wontons are a no-go. Despite Papa’s plea that “egg is egg,” and essentially central to the dish, Bailey still won’t eat it even sans pork. This is one of the most revealing scenes in the play. In additional to witnessing the craft of the acting, the audience learns of a gap between Bailey and Papa. There is certain lack of familiarity with each other, a lack of knowledge of each other’s lives. Bailey’s veganism derails Papa’s intention to share part of his history and culture. It’s a beautiful misalignment, which the play aims to resolve by its conclusion.

Papa has its share of surreal moments that for our panel fall into two camps. There is an ambiguous surreality when messages clash, mix, and linger. An early example occurs when Papa is preparing snacks for a visiting Bailey and the aural blaze of Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach” soundtracks the scene. Yes, we are talking about the 1986 hit that follows a Baroque chord structure and caused consternation for being interpreted as both anti-authority and in conservative camps, pro-life. In the music video, Madonna sings “I made up my mind, I’m keeping my baby” to a doting and ultimately accepting father, Danny Aiello. So, the song’s inclusion in Papa is interesting. Is it only because both works share the word “papa”? Or does the song place the scene in the mid 80s? Or does it foreshadow a tension caused by an unplanned pregnancy? (It doesn’t, but at the beginning of the play, it’s an open question.) However much it relates to the scene, the song rips and most importantly, it’s unexpected, which allows the audience to be more open to the leaps of reality that follow.

That brings us to a series of daydream sequences. These sequences represent Bailey’s active imagination and her tendency to amp up memories with fantastical elements. Papa’s reluctance to accept a blackberry raspberry pie from Bailey’s mother (even though it is later revealed that Papa quite likes pie) takes the form of a martial arts battle scene. Egg yolk spatters across the stage via mapped video projections, a consistently enjoyable presence designed by Aaron Henderson. The actors battle in slow motion a la John Woo’s Hard Boiled. Later, songs composed by Mark T. Evans arise from nowhere. For example, Hall sings of his desire for new beginnings. Since none of the performers are trained singers, the songs provide a very homey vibe. They are sometimes offkey or off tempo or not particularly powerful but very much like a family member singing around the house. While Bailey’s imagination initially detours to well-known genre exercises–martial arts films, musicals, spoken word–fantastical elements take on a more interesting tone as the play progresses.

Hall and Bailey visit a section of a cemetery where a number of Chinese Americans are buried. “There they go” — the gravestones are falling over due to some form of neglect. Soon, Hall and Bailey are carrying a gravestone, trying to right it back in its place. They share its weight and use that weight to take a literal journey across the stage while discussing lineage, history, and their family origins. The scene delights in stacked metaphors when the gravestones double as suitcases. (Oh, I should mention Papa is in the process of moving out of his long-term home in McKeesport to live with a relative in Chicago. Sorry, there’s a lot of plot in Papa. It’d be lengthy to fully summarize it here.) It’s a beautiful, dense scene, pairing slapstick with a rather dark, absurdist humor.

Another highlight involves a puppet of a ladybug that follows Hall around the stage. Hall likes to remember Bailey’s father/Hall’s son as a ladybug. The concept presents love, grief, and memory in a way that is both unique to Hall and representative of a more universal loss of a loved one.

Towards the end of the piece, there is less clarity about for whom this play is intended. Spoken interactions between Bailey and Papa turn a bit too precious. The monologues, while initially useful in framing the world, often hammer away the nuance of the more subtle scenes. There’s a meta moment, another of Bailey’s fantastical imaginings, perhaps, where Bailey talks about the play Papa and offers the critic-proof line of “maybe this isn’t good.” Then, Papa becomes an audience member and assures Bailey that it is, in fact, good. The phrase, “I love you, Papa” feels like it bookends a number of scenes. Added together, these aspects don’t carry the magic and depth of the wonton, ladybug, or graveyard scenes. Here, they tell more than they show.

Papa is a collage, of sorts. Memories from different time periods collide to reveal cyclical desires and insecurities passed through generations. In Hall Lee, we see self-sacrifice and restraint as a lifestyle, a core ethos. In the character of Bailey, we see an inversion, where “I” is often the starting point for understanding her family. There is a conflict between wanting to better others while fostering one’s own dreams. This play, Papa, is one of those dreams. For real-life Bailey Lee, this was a project that was feared but one that kept bubbling to the surface. Now that it is out in the world, one hopes that it takes some time to travel around and present itself to new and different audiences.

Review Panel:

David Bernabo is a filmmaker, musician, dancer, visual artist, and writer, performing with the bands Watererer, Else Collective, How Things Are Made, and Host Skull; devising dances with his variable dance company, MODULES; and often collaborating with Maree ReMalia | merrygogo. He curates and produces work for the Ongoing Box imprint and co-curates the Lightlab Performance Series with slowdanger.

Ariel Xiu is an artist whose works are meditations and performances on the multiplicity of human experience, the non-locatable, the interconnectivity of all things and their relationships — processed through the lens of an Asiatic lineage. She has performed in theatres including The New Hazlett and Kelly Strayhorn’s Alloy Studios, DIY house venues, and art galleries (Living Gallery and Baryshnikov Arts Center in NYC, SPACE in Pittsburgh). She is a former resident at The Space Upstairs and scholar of the annual Pulse Laser Workshop hosted by the HoloCenter at Ohio State University.

Music | Performance | Art | Criticism

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