Looking around, there was not one race predominant in McCain Auditorium Friday night for the performance of “Nigger Wetback Chink,” a controversial play written to challenge racial slurs and popular concepts of race.
Aaron George, junior in marketing, said he came to see the show with his four friends because no one he talked to had heard of it and he wondered what the performers would say about these three words, if they could shine new light on them through humor.
“NWC,” which has been viewed by 39,000 people in 39 states, came to K-State in 2006 with the original cast of Rafael Agustin, Miles Gregley and Allan Axibal. Currently, Axibal is in graduate school, said director Steven T. Seagle. In Friday night’s performance, Daisuke Tsuji took Axibal’s place.
To open, three men sung in rounds: “Chink, chink, nigger, nigger, chink, chink, wetback.” Each man snapped as he sang his respective racial slur and danced his stereotypical dance: the nigger, crunk; the wetback, salsa; the chink, kung-fu. As the crowd laughed, the three men stopped and realized the seriousness of their words, their tones of voice changing. Pointing to themselves with expressions of awe, Gregley was a nigger, Agustin was a wetback and Tsuji was a chink.
Agustin tried to tell the story of how Earth came to be by means of the three ethnicities, but Gregley and Tsuji took it as personal disses to their races. “In the beginning, there was nigger and there was a chink of light,” Agustin said. “The three were completed with a wetback.” Gregley, Agustin and Tsuji posed, shouting, “NWC.”
The word “nigger” dates back to 1574. Niger is the Latin word for black. Nigger means the same thing. The word is used today as more of a slang term between blacks, but its original purpose was to insult African-Americans.
The term “Wetback” dates back to 1954. Operation Wetback was the name of a program to remove illegal immigrants from the United States. The word references Mexicans trying to swim to the U.S.
The word “Chink” dates back to 1879. Chink is the mispronunciation of Chung-kuo, the Chinese word for China. A chink is also a small crack or narrow opening. Although people knew that was not how to say China in Chinese, they kept using the word to refer to Asians because of their seemingly closed eyes.
As an 8-year-old, Tsuji thought he looked just like Tom Cruise. He told this to his crush, Bridget, while they played tetherball. She said he was “too Chinese” and Cruise was a handsome white guy, upsetting Tsuji, who is actually Japanese.
He said he wished he was Caucasian — more Cauc, less Asian. He went home to tell his mom who joked he could get “the surgery” to remove skin from his eyelids.
Instead of changing himself, Tsuji tried to be perfect, like the expectations are of Asians. Once he ended up at a gay club sandwiched between two men because someone thought he was gay. He was pretty sure he wasn’t, but they were certain, and he needed to have hard evidence to prove otherwise — Tsuji had nothing to prove to anyone.
Even though Agustin, Gregley and Axibal originally wrote the show together in 2004, Tsuji fit right in because he went to UCLA with them and had the same racial struggles. Tsuji said the men did have to change Axibal’s biographical story in the presentation because he is Filipino and Tsuji is Japanese, but it worked because what matters is they are all humans.
“There is only one race — the human race,” Tsuji said.
Gregley said he felt he had something to prove too. When he was 13, he realized he was black. In English class, in an all-white school, surrounded by white friends, taught by a white teacher, Gregley sat and sang George Michael, the man he wanted to be. Making music in his head while the class read “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” the teacher called on him. His buddy generously pointed to him where to begin reading aloud, at which point Gregley stumbled on Jim being called a nigger. The entire room grew silent and stared at him. Gregley never noticed his skin color as different, but that day he stood out; he was that word.
After living in California with his white friends and surf lingo, Gregley moved to Atlanta, Ga. There, in an all-black school and neighborhood, he was picked on for being an “oreo.” He tried changing his clothes, but his dialect was still proper, still white. He listened to cassette tapes on speaking ghetto.
His mom saw the change in her son and sent him back to California to his father. His white friends asked what happened to him, his look and his speech. Gregley did not know who he was.
Agustin was also confused about himself. He is from Equador and cannot swim. His parents held high-status positions, but upon flying into the U.S. illegally, his parents went to cleaning and working at K-Mart.
One day they went to the beach, where not only the sand was white, all the people were too. A man was running, and men in uniform ran after him. Shouts of “La Migra” rang out, and Agustin’s parents rushed to leave. Agustin cried in Spanish of his desire to stay at the beach, but his father reprimanded him for speaking his native tongue. At the age of 11, he quit speaking Spanish for fear of “La Migra.”
He got sick of watching Ronald Reagan, the man he wanted to be, claim equality for all Americans. Agustin did become an American after 14 years by applying for his green card. He received it after exploiting his race in an acting competition where the reward was the opportunity to perform at the Kennedy Center. He went from getting ahead using a story about a one-legged man hopping the border to playing Biff in “Death of a Salesman.” Agustin lost to a black man doing the same play.
Nikki Price, freshman in pre-vet, said the play was both funny and meaningful. “I think a lot of people will be moved by the show — I was,” she said. “It will change many views.”
The message of the night: there is much to like about who you are, and you should stick your ethnic face where it “doesn’t belong.”