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Comedic Play Shows the Power of a Name: Elon University Presentation of ‘N*W*C*’ Challenges Ideas of Stereotypes

April 19, 2010

Photo Credit: Melissa Kansky

PDF version: NWC article

Shakespeare posed the question “what’s in a name?” “N*GGER, WETB*CK, CH*NK,” a comedy play about racial slurs, proves that the question is still relevant.

“I think they did an awesome job and established that these words have power, but only if you allow them to have power,” said Nneka Enurah, a junior at Elon University.

Miles Gregley, Rafael Agustin and Daisuke Tsuji star in the traveling play “N*GGER WETB*ACK CH*NK,” a title that no one feels comfortable enough to pronounce. Gregley plays the Black character, Agustin plays the Latino character and Tsuji plays the Asian. The actors have performed in 120 venues in 39 various states. Student Union Board and Multicultural Center sponsored the fourth performance of “N*W*C*” at Elon University at 8 p.m. Wednesday in McCrary Theatre.

At the end of the production, the three actors explained the origin of each of the derogatory terms. N*gger stemmed from the Spanish word for black, negro. The name wetb*ck evolved from the name of the U.S. government’s policy to reduce immigration. Ch*nk classified any person from an Asian nation.

“Three ways to name people became three ways to hurt people,” the actors said in unison.

Although the play ended with an explanation, it opened as each actor revealed himself from behind a white curtain, chanting his respective demeaning name.

“If you say things repeatedly sometimes they lose their meaning, but these (words) don’t,” said Caitlin Wang Fleisig, a student at Elon. “They are still biting each time they are said.”

Despite the degrading effects of these three terms, the actors strive to acknowledge that they exist.

“The purpose of the show is to create dialogue,” Gregley explained.

Although Elon University consists of a predominately white student body, the students do not shy away from the prospective conversation.  According to the Princeton Review, out of the 4,995 students at Elon, 80.74 percent of the student population is Caucasian, 2.38 percent is Hispanic, 5.77 percent is Black and 1.38 percent is Asian.

“Diversity is something that needs to be highlighted when you go to a predominately white school,” said My Nguyen, a member of the SUB executive board.

Photo Credit: Melissa Kansky

The comedy show presented the sensitive subject in a humorous manner. Tsuji’s character’s assertion that his looks mirrored those of Tom Cruise inspired Tsuji’s own rendition of “Old Time Rock and Roll.” The song along with a combination of rap, dance, poetry and personal stories ignited laughter from the audience.

“I think there are a lot of naïve students that are ignorant toward race and culture and it is good for them to see a show so riveting without being angry at what was said,” said Tavianna Williams, a student at Elon.

During the production of “N*W*C*,” audience members are more cautious than angry.  Actor Rafael Agustin recalls a performance in Minnesota where the entirely white audience resisted laughter throughout the majority of the play.

“It’s uncomfortable for an all-white audience because they are unsure if they can laugh,” Gregley said.

“The first laugh is my favorite thing,” Agustin said.

In order to prevent a high level of discomfort, he said he thinks it is important to do the show for a diverse audience.  Gregley explained that people feel more comfortable laughing when they are a minority as well; laughter from the minority group gives the rest of the audience permission to laugh too.

In contrast to his fellow performers’ preference for a diverse audience, Tsuji said he prefers to perform for a predominately white audience.

“I like to perform for those for whom it is awkward at first,” Tsuji said.

Although Elon’s campus is predominately white, Tsuji noticed that the audience was diverse. He said it felt a little like preaching to the choir.

“I think diversity is what you make it,” said Taylor Ferguson, a freshman at Elon. “It can be if you are a well-rounded person. It shouldn’t have to be based on the color of your skin.”

Nevertheless, race contributes to how the audience related to the characters.  Fleisig said that she thought the entire play was valuable, but her race enabled her to relate more to the Asian character.

“Sometimes when I look in the mirror next to a white kid I’m reminded I look different,” Tsuji said during a reception following the performance.

Fleisig shared a similar experience. She said that she did not notice she was different until she looked at class pictures.

“N*W*C*” strives to diminish the significance of these noticeable differences.

“I hope the audience walks away with that we have more similarities than differences,” Gregley said.

Below is a video produced by Speaker Theater Arts, the company that sponsors N*W*C*. It highlights their humorous approach to acknowledging stereotypes and then defying those misconceptions.

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