Friday, September 7, 2012

Finding Strength in Diversity

We hear a lot of talk these days about the value of diversity. Depending on who is speaking, it's not overly cynical to wonder if the speaker is merely giving lip service to a popular concept. Talking about diversity does not always jibe with truly accepting, embracing, and promoting it.

Whether we think of diversity in terms of politics, philosophies, community, or even menu planning, variety remains the spice of life. For a taste of mankind's magnificent diversity, check out this trailer for the BBC series entitled Human Planet.

Written in 1905 by Israel Zangwill (a British Jew), The Melting Pot had its Broadway premiere on September 6, 1909. A month later, when it opened in Washington, D.C., it was seen by President Theodore W. Roosevelt. According to Wikipedia:
"It depicts the life of a Russian-Jewish immigrant family, the Quixanos. David Quixano emigrates to America in the wake of the 1903 Kishinev pogrom in which his entire family is killed. He wishes to forget this horrible event and looks forward to a society free of ethnic divisions and hatred. He writes a great symphony called The Crucible, expressing his hope for a world in which all ethnicity has melted away. He proclaims that 'America is God's Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and reforming... Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians -- into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American.'

David falls in love with a beautiful Russian Christian immigrant named Vera. The dramatic peak of the play is the moment when David meets Vera's father, who turns out to be the Russian officer responsible for the annihilation of David's family. Vera's father admits his guilt, the symphony is performed to accolades, David and Vera live happily ever after, or, at least, agree to wed and kiss as the curtain falls."
Anyone who watched last week's Republican National Convention could not fail to notice how bland and white it seemed, how intensely the Republicans (helped by such ill-informed fools as Paul Ryan and Todd Akin) continued their war against women, and how much the week's activities were aimed at stroking and satisfying the wounded egos of angry white men. In a bizarre way, watching the camera pan across the attendees in the Tampa Bay Times Forum reminded me of the words used by United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in his opinion on the 1964 case of Jacobellis v. Ohio:
"Obscenity is not protected speech under the Miller test, and can therefore be censored. I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["hard-core pornography"]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that."
As cameras panned the audience in the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, North Carolina on opening night of the Democratic National Convention, Justice Potter Stewart's definition of obscenity "I know it when I see it" could have just as easily been used to describe the diversity of the Democratic delegates. The following video showcasing Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic women of the United States House of Representatives offers a shocking contrast to what was on display the previous week in Tampa, where camera crews were desperately trying to find African Americans in the audience.

Needless to say, Stephen Colbert viewed the proceedings from a very different perspective:

* * * * * * * * *
While some people like to stress the differences which keep us apart, others try to work with the similarities that bring us together. Listen to  Marjane Satrapi, the the talented co-writer and co-director (along with Vincent Parronaud) of Chicken With Plums as she explains how a story set in Iran can be made without stepping foot in Iran.

Most people probably wouldn't expect a film about a suicidal Iranian musician to be exotic, magical, and often hilarious. However, this is a near-perfect film, easily one of the most enjoyable I've seen all year.

When I first watched Chicken With Plums at the San Francisco International Film Festival, I noted that the final note of its musical score had not only been perfectly chosen, but placed at exactly the right moment. An intoxicating mixture of romantic fiction, fantasy, animation, and epic storytelling, Satrapi's film is even better the second time around.

Mathieu Amalric stars as Nasser-Ali, a world-famous violinist whose frustrated wife has just trashed his instrument. After his brother, Abdi (Eric Caravaca), refers him to the mysterious Houchang (Jamel Debbouze) -- a somewhat bizarre violin salesman who thinks nothing of sedating Nasser-Ali's annoyingly inquisitive son Cyrus (Mathis Bour) by lacing the child's milk with opium -- the audience is taken on the kind of grand Middle Eastern storytelling adventure that only lacks a magic carpet and a genie.

Poster art for Chicken With Plums

As a young man, Nasser-Ali had fallen head over heels in love with Irâne (Golshifteh Farahani), a beautiful young woman whose father (Serge Avedikian) refused to let her wed a musician. As a result, Nasser-Ali ended up marrying Faranguisse (Maria de Medeiros), a much homelier woman who bore him two children and raised them while he was off touring the world as a concert violinist.

Golshifteh Farahani as Irane

After many years, Nasser-Ali sees Irâne walking down the street with her grandchildren and approaches her. Her insistence that she does not recognize him causes the musician to lose all hope and determine that the only thing left for him to do is to die of despair.

Golshifteh Farahani (Irane)  and Mathieu Amalric
(Nasser-Ali) in a scene from Chicken With Plums

Satrapi's film bounces around in time, with some wonderful performances by Chiara Mastroianni as the adult version of Nasser-Ali's daughter, Lili, and Christian Friedel as the adult Cyrus. Isabella Rossellini has some lovely moments as Nasser Ali's mother, Parvine. Edouard Baer makes the most out of his appearances as Azrael, the archangel of death.

Mathieu Amalric as Nasser-Ali

Mathieu Amalric gives a wonderfully layered performance as Nasser-Ali, the romantic fool who eventually starves himself to death. The rest of the film contains so much charm, magic, and romantic fantasy that you'll find yourself wanting to watch Chicken With Plums again minutes after the film ends (Olivier Bernet's original score is sheer magic). Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
Having spent more than 35 years transcribing dictation from doctors and lawyers, I've been acutely aware of the challenges created by the entrance of speech recognition software into the field. While many assume that a database of words can accurately translate someone's speech, I have always stressed the cruel truth that software programs can only react to the speech they are fed -- no software program can compensate for a person's poor language skills.

Not surprisingly, this concept crosses any boundary of language or culture. Why? Artificial intelligence programs which may be able to translate straight text are often stymied by regional dialects, speech impediments (such as stuttering), tonal inflections, double meanings, homophones, and implied sarcasm.

All of the problems faced in trying to accurately translate a person's thoughts from one language to another are magnificently captured in Chinglish, a new play by David Henry Hwang recently seen in a co-production by the Berkeley Repertory Theatre and South Coast Repertory that will travel to the Hong Kong Arts Festival in March of 2013.

While websites like provide lots of laughs, others like (which provide assistance with concepts, marketing, proofreading, and understanding business-related cultural nuances) are directly aimed at companies hoping to develop clients in China. The Chinglish Files, which stresses that it is about passion (not mockery)is a blog that offers "the wonderful results of an English dictionary meeting Chinese grammar."

When my sister (a librarian) first toured the new San Francisco Public Library at 100 Larkin Street, she was appalled at how poorly the signage had been placed. By contrast, Hwang was inspired to write Chinglish after touring one of China's new cultural centers and discovering how poorly simple phrases had been translated for the facility's signage.

Beautifully directed by Leigh Silverman (and enhanced by the titles and projections designed by Jeff Sugg and Shawn Duan), Hwang's linguistic farce demonstrates how easily people from different cultures can misinterpret each other's speech while deftly demonstrating how less-than-qualified translators can screw things up because of poor language skills, inadequate manners, wounded egos, or something as simple as misguidedly translating a single word based on a random guess. The primary characters in Chinglish are:
  • Daniel Cavanaugh (Alex Moggridge), the owner of an Cleveland-based signage company who hopes to develop new clients in China after his brother nearly ruined their family-owned business.
  • Peter (Brian Ishii), a British expat living in China's rapidly growing inland city of Guiyang who, having accomplished some favors for local bureaucrats, is now trying to pass himself off as a fluent and astute business consultant.
  • Miss Qian (Celeste Den), a less-than-fabulous translator. 
  • Minister Cai (Larry Lei Zhang), a corrupt local politician who is very good at gladhanding potential business contacts even if he has no plan to deliver on his promises. 
  • Xi Yan (Michelle Krusiec), Minister Cai's stonefaced but ambitious assistant who is stuck in a loveless marriage.
  • Judge Gemin (Austin Ku), Xi Yan's husband who, upon being introduced to Cavanaugh is thrilled to meet a man who, because he was worked at Enron, can claim to have known such titans of industry as Jeffrey Skilling, Andy Fastow, and Kenneth Lay
David Cavanaugh (Alex Moggridge) is an Ohio-based businessman
hoping to gain new clients in China (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

It soon becomes obvious that things are not what they seem on the surface. Business practices that may seem commonplace in the West (a website that makes a one-man business seem like a mighty corporation) are shocking in the East. The difference between American and Chinese concepts of marriage, love, and fidelity prove to be a constant source of confusion and comedy.

Xi Yan (Michelle Krusiec) and David Cavanaugh (Alex Moggridge)
try to find common ground in Chinglish (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Having transcribed dictation from countless physicians (both American and foreign born) who, despite their advanced medical degrees, could not construct a coherent sentence, what I love about Hwang's script is how deftly it shows audiences that language is an art form, not a science. After witnessing the steadily increasing value over the past three decades of using Supertitles to enhance an operatic audience's to enjoy libretti originally written in a foreign language, I was thrilled to see how well their use impacted the audience for Chinglish. The dramatic fluidity of David Korins' set design with its twin revolving turntables helped keep the audience alert and guide them through Chinglish's rapidly changing shifts in power (not since Tony Walton's set design for 1989's Grand Hotel has a revolving door achieved so much in so precious few moments of stage time).

Xi Yan (Michelle Krusiec) and David Cavanaugh (Alex Moggridge)
mix pleasure with business in David Henry Hwang's  Chinglish
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Special kudos to Alex Moggridge and Michelle Krusiec for their skill in shifting from adversaries to sex partners, business enablers, and long-time family friends with such grace and ease. Brian Ishii delivered a fascinating portrayal of pompous professional failure who proves that he's really not worth much of anything.

The question, of course, is how well Hwang's dramedy will play before audiences. If it seemed perfectly at home in Berkeley, that may well be because the Bay area's diversity is so easily recognizable in workplaces, on mass transit, and in local communities. Performances of Chinglish continue at Berkeley Rep's Roda Theatre through October 21 (click here to order tickets).

No comments: