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Kitty Litter: Denise Uyehara pops a cap in 'Hello (Sex) Kitty.'

Take These Tea Leaves and Shove 'em

Denise Uyehara gets in touch with her inner Kitty in 'Hello (Sex) Kitty'

By Todd Inoue

HELLO KITTY has ascended to icon status. The mouthless Sanrio mascot represents an idyllic world of pretty flowers, narcoleptic feline sidekicks and gum-scented erasers. In a word: cute.

Before she became a performance artist, Denise Uyehara always wanted a Hello Kitty but couldn't afford one. She finally got her comeuppance, using the Japanese marketing giant as a trip device. She and Kitty blow up stereotypes in her one-woman play, Hello (Sex) Kitty: Mad Asian Bitch on Wheels.

"I wanted to use Hello Kitty because it represented sweetness and a cutesy mentality," Uyehara explains. "Everyone has a sweet, childlike side--it's part of the beauty of each person--but we also have the mad Kabuki side."

The dichotomy plays out in a scene where a Japanese exchange student--a nuclear physics major--is reduced to childlike blather by her Hello Kitty doll. The mad Kabuki woman emerges, head shaved, attitude on full tilt. Playtime is over.

For Denise, Hello (Sex) Kitty isn't meant to pass judgment. "I was interested in playing with the notion of cuteness and not label it as weak, or totally good or bad," she explains. "It's one of many facets of who we are."

For the past decade, the 35-year-old Uyehara has hoisted the mirror up to her audiences. She has explored what it means to be a woman, fourth-generation Japanese-American, bisexual and a human being. Her one-woman plays have traveled across America and around the world.

Uyehara grew up in Orange County. Her parents were scientists and art supporters; her mom studied Okinawan, Tahitian and Hawaiian dance, and her father pursued philosophy. Uyehara studied biology before switching to comparative literature and immersing herself in the performing arts.

"I think there is a connection between art and science, so I think it makes sense that I went from biology to literature to creating live art," she says. "It all has to do with inquiry."

In college, Denise acted out the pieces she wrote. She was a founding member of the clothing-optional Naked Sacred Nature Girls and is a member of the 18th Street Arts Complex in Santa Monica. Asian American performers like Jude Narita, Lane Nishikawa, Amy Hill--all experts at bridging the personal with the political--inspired her.

Uyehara's work veers far from her mentors, leaning toward the experimental side (advance warning: There is brief nudity). She stays up on the latest trends as a professor of drama and performance (and comparative literature) in the Asian American Studies department at UC-Irvine.

Uyehara straddles the line separating old and new schools of Asian American performance artists while pushing the artistic parameters. Hello (Sex) Kitty is contemporary but presented with enough hip grit to attract fans of poetry slammers I Was Born With Two Tongues and skit comics 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors.

The play has a rhythm to it--carefully entering the intersection between white, black, Asian, queer and straight. Topics of domestic violence, exoticism, AIDS and objectification are part of the journey.

Hello (Sex) Kitty receives the most attention for Uyehara's ritual disemboweling of Asian stereotypes. She affects a bitter, emasculated rage as an Asian guy who can't get laid in "The Joy Fucked-Up Club." The play opens with a torrid routine dubbed "The Asian Lesbian Standup Comic," in which she cracks some off-color jokes and takes ethnic inventory of the audience.

Though Asian folks will be "woo!"-ing away, sensitive people of all colors might shi(f)t in their seats. Denise, however, insists this is a parody. She's not a lesbian; she's bisexual. She's not a standup comic; she's an interdisciplinary performance artist. She is Asian, that much is true. She hopes people observe their own behavior. You don't have to be an Asian fetishist to act like one; you don't have to be in an abusive relationship to know what hurt feels like.

"I was interested in the terrain of being a woman and being bisexual and Asian American and being human all at the same time," Uyehara says. "I didn't want easy answers to tough questions about race and gender and domestic violence. Ultimately, the piece asks, 'Can you respect yourself and can you respect others?'"

Hello (Sex) Kitty: Mad Asian Bitch on Wheels starring Denise Uyehara plays Friday at 8pm and Saturday at 2pm (March 8-9) at the Stage, 490 S. First St., San Jose. Tickets are $12-$20 (408.298.2287; [email protected]; www.dasinfo.com)

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From the March 7-13, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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