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A buzzing hive of concepts kills Bee

Wednesday, Apr 4 2001
Bee is about race: Koreans ("yellow") and African-Americans ("black"). It's also about the nasty swarm of racial violence incited by the Rodney King verdict in 1992, and about a Korean guy from L.A., living in Vegas, who's invisible to all of American society except a 50-year-old cocktail waitress named Gina, who, coincidentally, is the mother of a black L.A. rioter responsible for torching a grocery store owned by the mother of the invisible Korean guy, called Devon. All clear? Well, don't worry. The situation is fed to you slowly in Bee, bit by unbelievable bit.

\rGina meets Devon on a park bench. She asks him for the time. "Can you see me?" he cries, and explains that he, Devon, has been invisible for about a year, since the day he ordered a latte at Starbucks and the counter girl stared right through him. Gina agrees this is a problem, so they go on a quest. They encounter a cracker cab driver, a bluestocking physicist, a burnt-out hippie priestess of the paranormal, and a homosexual Catholic priest -- a series of clichés -- none of whom can see Devon, much less grasp the trouble. But along the way Gina and Devon also discover their shared, festering, decade-old griefs, rooted in the L.A. riots.

These griefs include a mother (Devon's) who lost her livelihood and some of her mental stability when a young black man (Gina's son) threw a Molotov cocktail into her South Central store. The coincidence gives Devon and Gina the chance to have long debates about race and the American dream. "I need a good dose of social discourse once in a while," says the hippie priestess, overhearing them. But I'm afraid she never gets one -- and neither do we.

The Lorraine Hansberry Theater commissioned Bee from Prince Gomolvilas, a local Thai-American playwright who premiered his Debunking Love last November at the New Conservatory. The idea this time was to write a funny twist on Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. Gomolvilas, unfortunately, has loaded his play with concept at the expense of everything else. "This invisibility thing," says Devon, during a dream sequence/talk show interview that breaks up the anti-invisibility quest, "it's rife with metaphorical possibility, isn't it?" You bet it is. But when Gina asks, "A metaphor for what?" Devon answers, coyly, "It doesn't matter," which is 100 percent disingenuous, because it does matter, a lot, both to the playwright and to the play. Devon's invisibility is all about racism, which in the abstract matters more to Gomolvilas than his own characters do.

The real story in Bee is the bond between Devon and Gina -- their family histories, the riots -- but every word of their shared past needs to be dragged in sideways, because nothing in Devon's quest lends itself to natural conversation about family trauma or race relations in South Central. Devon and Gina have to find reasons to talk about these things, and watching them strain is painful.

Robert Wu plays Devon as a gay-but-angry Korean kid, earnest but a little confused; Jaxy Boyd's Gina is a more mature but in some ways closed-off African-American woman who's learned to make her way in Vegas. Neither performer has much character to work with, but they do what they can. Ginger Eckert has the slight advantage of playing comic-relief parts -- the burnt-out hippie, the snooty physicist -- but even these characters have a tendentiousness that makes them hard to bring alive. Randall Miller's taxi driver and conflicted gay priest are pure cardboard.

The pity is that if Gomolvilas had sprung his story from its invisible-man framework, he might have had a good play. I can easily see Devon and Gina meeting on a bus, discovering their painful family connection, and dealing with the consequences of the riots. In fact, the scene that deals only with the riots -- Gina and Devon standing apart, in beams of light, telling their respective stories -- is the most compelling. But Gomolvilas has to torture his material. He brings in scientific facts about bees in order to use the evocative title (killer bees are "African" and a threat in Las Vegas, but dangerous only in self-defense); he stretches his metaphors, piles on concepts, and forgets, in the process, how to tell an affecting and tragic story about a pair of potentially real people. Devon and Gina and everyone else comprise a self-conscious patchwork of notions borrowed from popular culture; in that sense, all of them are invisible to the playwright.


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