Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Look Back In Anguish

The other night, while attending a reading of Zohar Tirosh-Polk's new play, Six (presented as part of the Magic Theatre's Martha Heasley Cox Virgin Play series), I was fascinated to hear an Israeli soldier describe how, as a child living on the edge of the desert near Jerusalem, he used to delight in unearthing Roman coins and realizing that he was, in fact, living on top of the ruins of a previous civilization. Whether we put items from our current culture into a time capsule at the base of a modern building or examine the geological strata and rimrock of canyon walls, whether we dig up samples from the ocean floor or examine layers of prehistoric ice, the search for a greater understanding of our past never stops.

In recent years, new species of dinosaurs have been identified, newly-discovered Egyptian tombs have yielded fresh archaeological treasures, and previously unknown wall paintings in the ruins of a Roman villa have come to light. Siberia's melting tundra has yielded numerous tusks and skeletons of woolly mammoths. New technology has even allowed us to witness a submarine volcanic eruption:


While the scientific data gathered from such findings is invaluable, another part of man's history is harder to document. Archaeologists can retrieve artifacts and examine paintings which reflect a previous civilization's culture, but they cannot tap into the sounds and ethos of the people who were living at the time. While such discoveries can hint at what a civilization's lifestyle may have been like, they only provide tangible objects rather than intangible emotions.

Capturing the essence of a moment and its impact on one person (or an entire subset of people) is difficult to accomplish by the scientific method. Dramatists and documentarians, however, thrive on such challenges. Consider the following three examples:

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Once upon a time, long before the advent of multi-theatre cineplexes, the neighborhood movie house was as much a center of community activity as a local church or temple. People attended movies religiously (often for 2.5% the cost of today's admission prices). This was in an era before you could dial direct for a long distance phone call, when there were only three television networks, and when many immigrants were still learning how to speak English from the movies.

Senior citizens wait outside San Francisco’s Great Star
Theatre for a screening of an old Cantonese opera film.

In her lovely, poignant, and deeply nostalgic documentary, A Moment in Time (which will receive its North American premiere as part of the upcoming San Francisco Asian-American International Film Festival), filmmaker Ruby Yang examines the history of cinema in San Francisco's Chinatown -- not just the movie theatres that were attended by new arrivals to American shores, but the movie studios that churned out Chinese language films as well. In August of 1999, when the Great Star Theatre became the last of Chinatown's cinemas to shut its doors (following in the path of the Sun Sing, World, and Pagoda) historian Edward Liu wrote:
"It is sometimes not the movies that matter, but what we do inside the movie theaters. While our fathers and mothers put in brutal work days, we would hang out in the theaters. The Chinese theater was our escape from a hard existence, a safety valve from the banality, the suffocating crowd, the mean streets outside. It was our surrogate parent. As an ethnic Chinese immigrant kid, who did not experience urinating (with guilt, if any, suppressed) behind a hard wooden seat in a dark, nearly empty Chinese theater while an aunt, a sister, or a mother remained glued to the drama on the screen as the Chinese dialogue unfolded?"
A mother and daughter share an emotional moment
during a screening of Legend of the Purple Hairpin,
a classic Cantonese opera film.

Produced by Yang's husband, Lambert Yam (who owned the World Theatre for more than ten years), A Moment In Time also shows how Chinatown's theatres helped shape the awareness of Chinese-American audiences in successive decades.
  • During the 1920s and 1930s, screenings of old Shanghainese cinema as well as film adaptations of popular Cantonese opera productions helped many new immigrants to keep in touch with their native Shanghai.
  • During the 1950s and 1960s, as China underwent its cultural revolution, Chinese actors would often provide live updates about political events on the Chinese mainland.
A scene from 1947's The Lady From Shanghai, showing
the ticket booth for Chinatown's Sun Sing Theatre.
  • During the 1960s, musicals from Hong Kong gave Chinatown's teenagers plenty of inspiration with regard to clothing, dance, and new music. Screenings of West Side Story also gave Chinese youth new ideas about how to be cool or rumble with their peers.
  • Starting in the 1970s, martial arts movies helped provide a new image of the Chinese male as an ultra-masculine hero (Mock's documentary includes a hilarious clip of a prepubescent Bruce Lee).
  • Filmmaker John Woo and cinematographer Christopher Doyle describe the history of a San Francisco-based Chinese-American film industry that is largely unknown to local film enthusiasts.
Ticket holders rush forward for a screening of
Legend of the Purple Hairpin at Chinatown's Great Star Theatre.

Over the years, Chinatown's movie theatres provided many Chinese American families with an education about their ethnic background as well as an easy way to learn the English vernacular while strengthening ties within the community. Interviews with multiple generations of Chinese Americans reveal how many of the men yearned to be cowboys like Tom Mix, The Lone Ranger, and Hopalong Cassidy while Chinese women went to the movies with their mothers as a way of learning more about Chinese culture and Chinese opera.

A Moment In Time may drip with nostalgia, but it also provides valuable insights into the process of cultural assimilation for so many Chinese families who came to the United States hoping for a better life. While the interviews with Chinese elders reminiscing about the good old days may cause some tears to well up in viewers' eyes, the chance for non-Asians to see archival clips from Cantonese opera and Shanghainese melodramas is equal cause for celebration.

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Over at the Brava Theatre Center, the opening night of The Beebo Brinker Chronicles proved to be a pretty rowdy affair. Drinks were flowing and the man sitting behind me was very loudly and emphatically feeling no pain (which was good news, considering the slice of time depicted onstage).

Together with the current New York revival of Mart Crowley's 1968 homodrama, The Boys in the Band, this new play (adapted from three of Ann Bannon's lesbianic pulp novels by Kate Moira Ryan and Linda S. Chapman) does a spectacular job of showcasing the extreme levels of self-loathing and internalized homophobia that dominated the lives of gay men and lesbians prior to the birth of the gay liberation movement. Many lines in the play almost seem like outdated Republican talking points about social misfits and doomed homosexuals. It's a wonder no character was killed by a falling tree!

Michael Medici, Summer Serafin, Adam Yazbeck, Liz Anderson
(Photo by: Charles Villyard)

I stress this because many of the plot twists in The Beebo Brinker Chronicles revolve around the lies people were forced to live out of fear that their sexuality would be discovered. The drama begins with a lie shared between two college friends who have developed a crush on each other. In an era of repressed lust and unrequited love, such relationships were often doomed to failure.

Because of a basic lack of information about what it means to be a lesbian, neither Laura (Summer Serafin) nor Beth (Jayne Deely) have any ability to articulate their feelings or communicate their love. When Laura suggests that Beth dump her boyfriend and run away with her to build a life together, Beth panics and harshly rejects Laura's advances.

Fast forward several years and we find Laura living in New York, fending off the advances of Marcie (Liz Anderson), her obnoxious roommate who thinks Laura can give her a taste of something exotic. Meanwhile, Beth is stuck in a loveless marriage with Charlie (Adam Yazbeck), who is having a tough time understanding his wife's mood swings, her lack of interest in their children, or her desire to run away.

Beth (Jayne Deely) and Charlie (Adam Yazbeck)
(Photo by: Charles Villyard)

Laura may have a crush on Marcie, but her closeted friend Jack (Michael Medici) is wise to what's going on. Despite his efforts to convince Laura that he's gay and Marcie is always going to be straight, Laura keeps carrying a torch for her roommate. Until, of course, she hooks up with the jaded Beebo Brinker (Erin Maxwell), a butch dyke who derives immense satisfaction from her job as an elevator operator (because she can wear pants at work) and who gives Laura a roller coaster introduction to gay life in Greenwich Village.

Beebo (Erin Maxwell ) and Laura (Summer Serafin)
(Photo by: Charles Villyard)

Years pass and Beebo tries to throw an anniversary party for the ever moody Laura. But Beebo's mischievious friend Lily (Rebecca Poretsky) spills the beans about Laura's new flame. Following the angry breakup of her relationship with Beebo, Laura reluctantly accepts Jack's proposal to wed.

After they've been married for several years (and Laura has had a child by artificial insemination), guess who arrives in town? None other than the miserable Beth, who has finally left Charlie and come to New York in search of her true self and the long-lost love of her life. With help from Nina Spizer (Khamara Pettus), Beth gets introduced to Beebo, who reluctantly tells her how to find Laura.

Beth (Jayne Deely) and Nina Spizer (Khamara Pettus)
(Photo by: Charles Villyard)

Younger generations of gay men and lesbians who have grown up attending annual gay pride celebrations, patronizing gay-owned and operated businesses, and have the Internet at their fingertips probably have no idea what it was like to be forced to live a secret life or self-identify as either a friend of Judy's or someone who researching a term paper on a taboo subject. While The Beebo Brinker Chronicles draws plenty of knowing laughs from an audience that is older, sadder, and much wiser than the characters onstage, there is an educational component to this play that could easily be overlooked by LGBT people who didn't live through the terrors of McCarthyism or the Eisenhower administration.

Whether one considers the ill-fated, miserable marriage between Beth (Jayne Deely) and Charlie (Adam Yazbeck) in California or the cynical marriage of convenience between Jack (Michael Medici) and Laura (Summer Serafin) in Manhattan, a look back in time provides a powerful argument for marriage equality for same-sex couples. Although The Beebo Brinker Chronicles revolves around the lesbian subculture, the production's strongest performances actually came from Adam Yazbeck and Michael Medici as the men in Beth and Laura's lives.

Special mention should be made of the superb jazz trio that warmed up the crowd before the show (and provided background music at key points in the drama). Hats off to Caroline Chung on bass, Jean Repetto on guitar, and Daniel Stark on saxophone, piano, and flute -- as well as to vocalist Shakira de Abren -- for their exceptional contribution to the evening.

Raelle Myrick-Hodges directed the play with a sure sense of repressed desire, bitter irony, camp humor, and the crushing sense of shame that tormented so many LGBT people "back in the day." Because of the limited fly capacity of the Brava Center's stagehouse, Matt McAdon's set design didn't work quite as well as he might have hoped on opening night.

The Beebo Brinker Chronicles offers a valuable peek into what gay life once was, and how much our current freedoms deserve to be cherished. The production runs through March 13 (you can order tickets here).

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With so much of today's media coverage of military matters devoted to the possible repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, it's likely that few people under the age of 50 are familiar with the term "conscientious objector." Those who faced the threat of being drafted during the Vietnam War, however, probably remember what a difficult decision it was to apply to one's local draft board for CO status.

Freida Lee Mock's new documentary, Lt. Watada, focuses on the incident several years ago when an Asian American commissioned officer found himself unable and unwilling to follow orders which would have sent him to Iraq to participate in what he deemed to be an immoral and illegal war.

Despite his plans for a career in finance, Watada enlisted in the United States Army following the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. He soon realized that asking military personnel to be the best they can be can sometimes backfire on the chain of command -- especially when a soldier realizes that intelligence has been corrupted and cherry-picked for the wrong purposes.

When news of Ehren Watada's decision to question authority first surfaced, some people thought he might have been naive about enlisting and thinking that he could avoid military combat. As it turns out, that was not the case at all.

After his battalion commander encouraged him to learn everything there is to know about the military, Watada took his research more seriously than most. As he studied the history of the Middle East (and in particular, Iraq), he realized that President George W. Bush had dragged the United States into an illegal war based on a carefully constructed series of lies.

After invoking the Geneva Convention and United Nations Charter, Watada and his lawyer dared to ask what happens if and when America's elected leaders become enemies of the state. With support from such disparate factions as Grannies for Peace and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Watada's future seemed bleak as the date for his court martial drew nearer.

Like every commissioned officer, Watada had sworn an oath of loyalty to the people of the United States and to the Constitution (not to the person who, along with the being President, was the nation's Commander in Chief).

Mock's documentary allows Watada to explain how his conscience was raised, the toll his actions will exact on his future, and the reasons why his research led him to a position where he could no longer obey orders to deploy to Iraq. Watada's parents and friends describe what the process has been like for them as well, giving audiences a chance to understand what it means to be a conscientious objector and what led to the judge declaring a mistrial.

Although only 40 minutes long, Lt. Watada packs a pretty heavy punch. You can watch Ehren Watada outline the basic argument for his case in the following video clip:


1 comment:

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