`Undesirable Elements': Crisscrossing Of Cultures

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"Undesirable Elements: Seattle." Conceived and directed by Ping Chong. Produced by Group Theatre, Center House, Seattle Center. Wednesdays-Sundays through March 5. 441-1299.

Zola Mumford lifts her voice to sing an old African-American spiritual, "Ezekiel's Wheel." Before she's finished, Kristofer Cochran launches into an Eskimo chant accompanied by the beat of a tribal drum.

That sound is overtaken by a Japanese song from Nikki Nojima Louis, which melts into an rousing Icelandic tune sung by Ragna Sigrun, giving way to Ivars Mikelson's soulful rendition of a Latvian ode.

The textured musical layering in "Undesirable Elements: Seattle" is a captivating metaphor for how cultures dovetail to create the great American social mosaic.

The huffy public debates over multiculturalism often ignore the bottom line that this fascinating Group Theatre show, created by Ping Chong, underscores.

Like it or not, we Americans are, and will continue to be, a wildly varied lot, with roots extending across the globe. And when we listen carefully to each other's stories, we can learn a great deal about our differences and links.

On a stark half-moon set by Gary Cotter, rimmed in menthol-blue light and equipped with a semi-circle of black chairs, eight men and women assemble to, as the Hawaiians like to say, "talk story."

The cast members (who also include Hanna Eady, Leyla Modirzadeh and Julyana Soelistyo) have unique sagas to impart: about how they became Americans. About relations born in Iceland, Japan, Iran. About returning to the "motherland." About discovering and rejecting and embracing the ancestral past, being insider and outsider.

Sometimes the stories are told in the exotic cadences of foreign tongues. And they are parceled in orchestrated fragments, intercut with songs, salutations, tongue twisters, poems and historical facts, and backed up by slide images of maps.

By the end of this engrossing choral scrapbook we've learned a bit about the Stalinist purges in Latvia, as well as the correct way to announce a Palestinian wedding and call your Chinese-Indonesian relatives in to dinner.

The cool, stark ritualism of Chong's staging - which includes unison spurts of gesturing, walking and clapping - may seem severe at first, even clinical. But Chong's longstanding aesthetic preference for postmodern formality serves a good purpose here.

In "Undesirable Elements," the lack of overt sentimentality and visual clutter clears a path directly to each speaker. Their interlocked oral histories, gathered and cleverly edited by Chong and Talvin Wilks, come to us in a respectful but bias-neutral frame that gives no more weight to one culture than another, and equal time to chicken-calling and wars.

The evening is refreshingly low on rhetoric, yet amply pierced with humor, drama, pride and passion.

Chong has created similar assemblages in several other places. And by the end of the 90-minute Group version, you understand the durability of his approach.

Yes, these Seattle actors are an especially colorful and engaging bunch. But go to any big U.S. city, enlist eight articulate people of diverse ethnicity, and the stories will likely be every bit as eventful, disturbing and heartening. We are that kind of nation.