There’s an old saying attributed to everyone from Oscar Wilde to Gore Vidal to George Lucas: “a work of art is never finished, only abandoned.” It seems, as of late, however, that isn’t even true. Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day closed a revival at The Public only a few months ago with a series of heavy revisions in order for Kushner to inject his modern sensibilities into the Reagan-era work. Reviews were mixed, and while I didn’t see the production myself, it was one of the first things on my mind when I sat down to think about Sim Yan Ying’s I LOVE WHITE MEN that just ended its three day run at Caveat last month.
The piece exists in the currently popular middle circle of the Venn diagram containing stand-up and one-person-showmanship and concerns its author’s fixation on why exactly she has only been interested in the titular group since relocating to America from her native Singapore. The show takes the form of her investigation into that desire, from Singapore’s own history of colonization, to both countries’ media homogeny, to her own inappropriate pen pals and racist internet threads. Sim Yan Ying (also known as YY) has a commanding presence and unique rhythm to her speech that captivates even as it delivers devastating punch lines. During the show that I attended, she was able to diffuse a potentially disruptive audience participation overstep with aplomb.
Caveat was the second time that I saw the show, the first being at Ars Nova’s ANT FEST in the summer of 2019, and the show has undergone some significant changes (though it has kept its same core creative team consisting of YY, director Renee Yeong and dramaturg Nicholas Chan). While I believe some omissions (the Reddit section especially) may cause some loss in focus, the additions concerning the history of Singapore feel necessary to provide context for a milieu unfamiliar to much of the audience. I do think that the show was more streamlined at Ars Nova, but I no longer think that’s what interests YY.
At the end of the piece, YY reveals that she has been able to compartmentalize her love for the white men in her life, in her new home, and in the world at large. She has finally come to terms with her love for white men and is able to move on with her life. And move on she does, as she concludes the piece talking about what matters most to her. Here I hear the Kushnerean Xillah. As YY would be the first to tell you, the woman who began this journey is not the same one who ended it. With a one-person show, and a young artist, this change is not only par for the course but a uniquely compelling part of following the journey.
This isn’t to say there isn’t growing to do. The earlier version of the piece that I saw didn’t acknowledge YY’s own racial privilege in Singapore, something this later version goes out of its way to do. While this is welcome, some of that awareness should also be shared with others, especially those in America. The play’s lone Black character is… troublesome, if I’m being honest. His existence as a non-white, non-Asian character troubles the thesis of the narrative, and his portrayal as one of the only men not seen as a romanticosexual option for YY, as well as his reference to “baby mamas” could use some tweaking. Similarly, while I certainly didn’t expect this piece to zero in on the reasons for white exotification of Asian culture, its misunderstanding of what Jewish people fundamentally are is distracting.
This is what happens when watching metamorphosis, though. Growing pains are to be expected. YY has earned some serious buzz for selling out Dixon Place during I LOVE WHITE MEN’s initial run, and both of the subsequent showings have only increased local appetite. She has her next piece, Where are You? up as a part of Mabou Mines’ SUITE/Space, and I know I am far from the only one curious to see where she goes from here.