Collage Of Culture -- `Undesirable Elements' Explores Seattle Faces

When the cast of "Undesirable Elements: Seattle" at the Group Theatre gathered for a potluck lunch, they tucked into quite a spread.

One person brought a platter of Middle Eastern stuffed grape leaves. Others shared Indonesian satays, Chinese fried rice, Latvian sauerkraut, Persian cardamom cookies and Alaskan honey taffy.

Cooking and eating ethnic foods is one of the few ways assimilated Americans remain in touch with the heritage of distant relations. But for the performers in "Undesirable Elements," which opens at the Group Wednesday, it's not the only way.

Conceived and directed by innovative New York creator Ping Chong, this cool-handed "Roots" collage presents a collective oral history of eight Seattle residents from culturally divergent backgrounds.

To win a slot in the cast, each of the eight was required by Chong to investigate past generations and come up with a detailed family tree.

"We all had to answer a set of questions about our family past, and to collect songs, poems, tongue twisters and recipes," reports Julyana Soelistyo, a young actress raised in an ethnic Chinese family in Sumatra, Indonesia.

"I had to call home and fax my parents a lot to find out things, like the name of the town where my grandparents met."

Zola Mumford, an aspiring African-American filmmaker, grew up in Seattle and had a head start on her research. Her mother, Esther Mumford, is a prominent local historian who has traced her side of the family back to the 1850s.

But for Kristofer Cochran, the task proved more daunting. An Alaska native, he cheerfully notes, "My background is very mixed. I'm part Inuit Eskimo, part Portuguese, part Scottish - a real Heinz 57."

Reconstructing his paternal lineage was particularly difficult. Cochran's parents divorced when he was small, and he hasn't seen his father since. But the aspiring actor persisted, and dug up some fascinating scraps of information about his family. And, with help from a linguist in Alaska, he has become the first member of his immediate family to learn the Inuit language.

According to Chong, the entire Group ensemble - which also includes an Arab born in Israel, an immigrant from Latvia, a Japanese American and an Iranian American - uncovered so much intriguing material that he and dramaturg Talvin Wilks could have constructed a show much longer than the 90-minute version they're fine-tuning.

But Chong's performance collages long have been characterized by his painstaking selection, editing, and distillation of factual details, and his idiosyncratic juxtaposition of them. Like Chong's earlier editions of "Undesirable Elements" in Minneapolis, New York and Cleveland theaters, this one will seat the performers on a spare, clean-lined set.

Their "testimony," delivered singly and in chorus, in English and other languages, will be enhanced by lighting, slides and music.

The point of the exercise, comments Chong, is to depict "a cross-the-board human experience. Here you have eight people from eight backgrounds, yet there are certain similarities in their stories."

The ancestral paths of the performers have indeed dovetailed in some surprising particulars. The most dramatic: One of Cochran's relations was a Portuguese slave owner in Louisiana, around the time a four-times grandfather of Zola's came here from Madagascar on a Portuguese slaveship.

Raised in New York's Chinatown by immigrant parents, Chong fears we Americans are becoming increasingly intolerant of our cultural differences. The title "Undesirable Elements" comes from legislation that restricts immigration, and Chong notes that xenophobic sentiment is growing throughout the land.

"I want people to really see what a rich and diverse culture we have in this country, and how little access we have to it," declares the director.

"This has nothing to do with multiculturalism, per se. I'm just fascinated by culture in general. My intention with the show is to make people aware that when you pass someone on the street, and they look different, behind that strange face is a history that could be a lot like your own."