“Krunk Fu Battle Battle” defies gravity and stereotype

By Rosemary McClure '13 Editor-in-Chief

The words “hip-hop musical” hit me like a ton of bricks—or perhaps I should say, like a slug to the chest. The concept makes so much sense, one wonders why such productions are not mainstream.

“Krunk Fu Battle Battle (KFBB),” the hip-hop musical written by Qui Nguyen which opened on Apr. 11 at Pomona College, did not disappoint. KFBB tells the story of Norman Lee (Cheuk Piu Lo, PZ ’14), a high school student who just emigrated to Brooklyn from Hong Kong, who foolishly challenges Sunset High’s reigning b-boy Three-Point (Ben Hong) to a dance battle for a date with slam poet Sweet Cindy Chang (Kayla Dalsfoist, SCR ’13). With the help of his new friend Wingnut (Bredan Gillett, PO ’14) and b-boy coach Lloyd, A.K.A. Sir Master Cert (Ken Saw), Norman accesses his inner b-boy, taking down Three Point’s crew and learning life lessons: “It’s not about getting it right. It’s about making it work when you get it wrong.”

KFBB is at its core a feel-good boy-meets-girl underdog story, which is nothing new. Like all musicals, it is over-the-top—every time a character says “Krunk Fu Battle Battle,” the audience hears thunder and the lights flash ominously. But the hip-hop element is fresh and innovative, preventing heavy-handedness as the narrative explores immigration, language, and burgeoning masculinity and femininity. KFBB is like a younger, hipper “West Side Story.” With breakdancing. Like if “You Got Served” had a soul.

Director Joyce Lu, Assistant Professor of Theatre at Pomona College, picked her cast well. Lo was perfect as Norman, conveying the character’s heart of gold without overdoing the naiveté. Saw, as the unexpectedly legit aging b-boy coach Sir Master Cert, was flawless, from the vintage Kangol to the shower sandals (complete with socks!). Dalsfoist as Sweet Cindy Chang left me wanting more: in similar storylines, the female lead is often portrayed as a passive object, her companionship is awarded to the victor like a trophy. But Chang is no damsel in distress. She is a talented poet and a feminist with big dreams and a take-life-by-the-horns attitude. Dalsfoist actually wrote the spoken word piece that introduces us to Chang’s character.

Dance performances were collaboratively choreographed by D. Sabela Grimes and King-Edqux Robinson (PO ’15), as well as breakdancers Ben Hong (as Three Points), Ronald Nemo (as Three Points’ crony L.A.), William Goodman, and Rocky Reyes. From flares to floor rocking, hand glides, back spins, backflips (yes, really), and one-handed handstands, these dancers’ incredible talent was a treat.

KFBB is breaking ground in terms of both its genre and its thematic concept. Apart from R. Kelly’s magnificent “Trapped in the Closet,” which I consider to be in a genre all its own (one reserved for masterpieces of Shakespearean genius with “Family Guy” randomness), rap musicals have languished at the margins. Pomona’s production was the first run of the show since its world premiere in May 2011.

Asian and Asian American actors are exceptionally underrepresented in film and on the stage. The roles they do receive are often restricted to one-dimensional characters that perpetuate offensive stereotypes. Asian men are cast as Kung Fu masters, evil villains, or the token foreigner whose plotline centers on his assimilation into white culture. Asian women are pigeonholed into hypersexual, dangerous roles: secret agents, geishas, and sexy assassins whom the male lead must “conquer.”

KFBB pokes fun at these tropes. Meghan Gallagher (SCR ’15) plays Chang’s best friend Moe Moko, whose neon wig and Sailor Moon-esque costume caricature our obsession with anime. To explain his curious bruises and late nights, Norman tells his mother Lloyd is teaching him Kung Fu—“Ancient Chinese wisdom.” But Lloyd does not know the first thing about Kung Fu—he is a KRUNK Fu master! The play also satirized the homogenization of Asian cultures that too often occurs in pop culture. Norman joked that because he was Chinese, he could easily pick up Tagalog to impress Chang, which is a bit like saying, “I speak Spanish, so Swahili should be no problem.”

The Bechdel Test, a heuristic shortcut to expose gender bias in movies, asks three questions: does the film have at least two named female characters? Do they talk to each other? About something other than a man? Anti-racist media critics have adapted this rule of thumb to test for racism: Are there at least two Asian characters? Do they talk to each other? About something other than their ethnicity? Most films, TV shows, and books fail both tests miserably. Thus, KFBB’s majority-minority cast serves as a much-needed counter-narrative to the Othering norms of mainstream American pop culture.

“This was the first time I’ve been cast in a role that’s explicitly Filipino,” said Dalsfoist. “I’ve always been cast as ‘ambiguous’ or whitewashed. I’m Filipino. And Swedish. It’s weird being able to act onstage as yourself.” While KFBB is male-centric, Dalsfoist thinks Cindy Chang has “more depth than the usual leading lady. I also appreciate that they didn’t make Cindy oversexualized.”

While KFBB’s lead characters’ ethnicity is in no way ignored—Chang flows about being Filipina, Norman struggles to adjust to Brooklyn, and we discover Lloyd is faking his accent to spend time with Norman’s mother—it is one of many defining characteristics in a narrative that re-centers Asians and Pacific Islanders without tokenizing them. In doing this within the context of the little-utilized hip-hop musical genre, KFBB presents a counternarrative that is well-placed in the college musical theatre context.