Sunday, July 4, 2010

Struggling To Retain One's Sense of Dignity

July 4, 1776. Some 234 years ago, the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia's Independence Hall. A cornerstone of our democracy, it included the following language:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security."
The moral fiber of the United States has been tested by slavery, prohibition, the Great Depression, the Civil War, terrorist attacks, sex, drugs, rock'n roll, and dangerous fools like Senator Joseph McCarthy, Glenn Beck, and Sarah Palin. Yet, throughout its history, this nation has continued to welcome immigrants, adjusted to the demands of the civil rights movement, and kept trying to seek "a more perfect union."

Sometimes people have been beaten down in the course of demanding fair treatment by a nation of laws, not men. Sometimes people have had to pull themselves back together after being tortured, humiliated, spat upon, and threatened with death.

Miraculously, hope keeps bringing them to their feet, determined not to let others degrade or define them as something less than human. Lest we take our freedoms (including those we have yet to achieve) for granted, a series of political dramas helps us focus on what was, what is, and what could become our future.

* * * * * * * * * * *
A deeply moving documentary that will be shown at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival later this month, Ingelore tells the story of a German Jew, born in 1924, who triumphed over misfortune, adversity, and a physical handicap. Born to Jewish parents in Kuppenheim, Germany, Ingelore Herz was deaf and mute. Not knowing what to do with such a child, her parents basically ignored her and made no effort to communicate with her.

As a result, Ingelore did not speak her first word until she was six years old (she was finally able to complete a full sentence at the age of 12). Her education came to a sudden halt when the other students at her school started taunting her for being a Jew (a word she could not even understand).

After being trained to work as a maid, she was raped by two Nazi cadets. Thrown out of school shortly after Kristallnacht, she returned home to Kuppenheim. Much to her surprise, her father (who had owned a hardware store), was allowed to return home from Dachau because the Nazis needed his contacts with suppliers.

The Herz family managed to escape to Rotterdam, where Ingelore's uncle arranged their passage to New York aboard the S.S. Volendam (which was torpedoed later that year but did not sink). Ingelore's arrival in the United States on February 22, 1940 (George Washington's Birthday) was accompanied by an unwanted pregnancy that was soon followed by an abortion performed by a sympathetic doctor.

The S. S. Volendam

The 40-minute documentary combines archival footage and dramatic reenactments with a first person interview in which Ingelore uses her voice and communicates in sign language. As filmmaker Frank Stiefel explains:
"Ingelore is my mother's story. It is also the first project that I have directed. While I had heard many pieces of the story over the years, the first time I heard it as a single narrative was when my mother lectured to a room of deaf students at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, New York. At a moment in the lecture, I knew this should be a film. A moment later, I appointed myself to direct. My original purpose was to leave the film to my children, so that a record survived of their grandmother. As the film proceeded, it became more of an art project that took on a larger piece of my life."
There is a great poignancy to this film, much of it conveyed through Ingelore's emotional narration as she speaks and signs to the camera. Listening to her describe how thrilling it was to see the Statue of Liberty as the Volendam entered New York Harbor -- or to watch her, at age 85, enjoying a Passover seder with her family -- is a heartwarming experience. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * * *
A major goal of documentarian filmmakers is to make the public aware of a story that has not been covered by the mainstream press and to correct previous misconceptions about historical events. For gay filmmakers, the need to document a history so many people know nothing about (especially since a generation of gay men who might have passed on that history have already died of AIDS) creates a greater sense of urgency.

In 1995, British filmmaker Nigel Finch died of AIDS shortly after finishing his fictionalized version of the events leading up to the Stonewall Riots in Greenwich Village in June of 1969. Based on a novel by Martin Duberman, with a script by Rikki Beadle-Blair, Stonewall's cast included Guillermo Diaz as La Miranda, Frederick Weller as Matty Dean, Duane Boutte as Bostonia, Dwight Ewell as Helen Wheels, and Bruce MacVittie as Vinnie. Stonewall was an extremely powerful and well-made movie with an impressive musical score by Michael Kamen.

In 2005, Victor Silverman and Susan Stryker's documentary, Screaming Queens: The Riot At Compton's Cafeteria, made its debut. It documented the Compton's Cafeteria riot in San Francisco's Tenderloin district in August 1966 (one of the first recorded transgender riots in United States history), which preceded New York's Stonewall Riots by three years.

Sons of Tennessee Williams received its world premiere at this year's Frameline 34 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival. In it, members of various gay Krewes from New Orleans recalled how, since 1959, the gay community had been visible in Mardi Gras celebrations. In 1962, when the Krewe of Yuga rented a nursery school in conservative Jefferson Parrish for its drag ball, the police raided the event just at the moment when the King and Queen were about to be crowned. In his film, Tim Wolff leaves no doubt that clashes between the gay population of New Orleans and local police preceded Stonewall by 10 years.

The Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village

Also screened at the Frameline festival (and now opening in theatres) is a new documentary entitled Stonewall Uprising (produced as a PBS Experience feature), which bears a most curious distinction. In all the documentaries I've seen about the rise of the gay rights movement, this new one (crafted by David Heilbroner and Kate Davis) may be the first to omit any mention of Judy Garland's death as a contributing factor to the Stonewall Riots.

What the film does do magnificently is document the climate in which gays existed prior to the Stonewall Riots. Archival footage depicts:
  • A news clip of Mike Wallace from a 1966 CBS Reports feature asserting that "The average homosexual, if there be such, is promiscuous. He is not interested in, nor capable of, a lasting relationship like that of a heterosexual marriage."
  • References to the aversion therapies used at California's Atascadero State Hospital where gay patients were sometimes subjected to electroshock treatments, lobotomies, or the use of a chemical that induced a sensation of drowning.
  • Descriptions of police entrapment in subway station men's rooms.
  • Footage of then City Councilman Ed Koch in Greenwich Village, looking very much like a closeted gay man.
  • Educational films warning children how they don't ever want to become a homosexual, and telling them how to watch out for "predatory homosexuals."
  • Pictures of gay men arriving in drag for a social event.
This film also has surprising testimony from former Mayor Koch, Seymour Pine (the policeman who led the raid on the Stonewall Inn), and two reporters from the Village Voice (Howard Smith and Lucian Truscott IV), one of whom was actually inside the Stonewall.

Survivors of the raid recall how the Stonewall was run by the Mafia, which owned the jukeboxes and provided the liquor it had stolen and was then selling at high profit margins in watered-down drinks. What was supposed to have been a routine raid went horribly wrong on the night of June 28, 1969. As Truscott recalls, “This was the Rosa Parks moment, the time that gay people stood up and said no. And once that happened, the whole house of cards that was the system of oppression of gay people started to crumble."

For many young gay people, Stonewall Uprising may deliver a severe cultural shock as they learn what things were like in the pre-Stonewall era. As one of the original rioters explains:
“Gay people were never supposed to be threats to police officers. They were supposed to be weak men, limp-wristed, not able to do anything. And here they were lifting things up and fighting them and attacking them and beating them. All of a sudden the police faced something they had never seen before."
In the following video clip, former Mayor Ed Koch (who is one of the talking heads in the documentary) describes the film and some of the political progress of the gay rights movement following the Stonewall Riots:

While the following trailer contains some footage seen in the previous clip, it is worth watching for other material from the documentary.

* * * * * * * *
After reading a provocative article by Andy Grove (co-founder of Intel) entitled How To Make An American Job Before It's Too Late, and a brilliant diary from DailyKos entitled John Boehner's America, I was curious to see what the San Francisco Mime Troupe's new show, Posibilidad, would have to say about job losses in America. Rarely, to my memory, has the Mime Troupe delivered such a lame production or relied so heavily on incidental music to move things forward.

Poster art for Posibilidad

What was intended to be a biting theatrical satire comparing the plight of workers at Peaceweavers (a small clothing manufacturer in northern California) with those in Posibilidad (a fictional barrio in Buenos Aires, Argentina) turned out to be a horribly didactic and painfully labored attempt to stretch a weak concept into a 90-minute piece of anti-capitalist theatre. Director/choreographer Wilma Bonet's attempts to transition back and forth between a group of American workers who like to watch Spanish telenovelas during their break time -- and a group of Argentinians who form a cooperative after their employer absconds with their wages -- imploded on the Mime Troupe's portable stage with a dismal regularity.

While the American workers tried to cope with an employer who demanded all sorts of corporate perks for himself (ranging from New Age music to massages with "happy endings"), the Argentinians seemed more obsessed with rivalries between local soccer teams than anything else. Lisa Hori-Garcia appeared as Sofia, the very pregnant worker who starts to experience labor pains in America, but manages to regale her coworkers with tales of labor triumphing over management in Argentina. Mime Troupe veteran, Velina Brown doubled as Sofia's American co-worker, Donella, and soccer-crazed Argentinian mother, Claudia.

The cast of Posibilidad (Photo by: David Allen)

Maggie Mason juggled multiple roles as Maria (the female lead in the telenovela series), corporate board member, Mrs. Gachs (the merciless numbers cruncher at Peaceweavers), and El Patron, the cartoon-like owner/villain of the Argentinian factory. Brian M. Rivera doubled as Manny (the first person to get fired from Peaceweavers) and Sofia's Argentinian co-worker/boyfriend, Indelicio.

A newcomer to the Mime Troupe, Rotimi Agbabiaka, appeared as Juan (the male lead in the telenovela series), Ernesto (the ditzy owner of Peaceweavers), and Thiago (an Argentinian worker in the collective). Each set of workers had their own form of escapism. At least the audience in Dolores Park had beautiful weather and some very happy dogs to distract them from Michael Gene Sullivan's frequently incoherent script.

* * * * * * * * *
Where Posibilidad tried to shine a light on labor issues that are causing such pain and anguish for American workers, Paul Heller's complex new drama, Beijing, California, does a brilliant job of examining how America's slavish devotion to the invisible hand of the free market could lead to its demise as a superpower.

One of the most provocative and ambitious plays of the year, Beijing, California is currently receiving its world premiere production from the Asian American Theatre Company. Heller's drama explores what would happen to Americans if, instead of invading other countries, the United States was invaded another superpower (in this case, China). According to the play’s director/dramaturg, Duy Nguyen:
Beijing, California viscerally depicts how losing money and power affects people’s values. Growing up in a Third World country and having been a boat refugee, I understand extreme poverty and how that shapes what we can or cannot believe in. Now, as an upper middle class citizen in America, I can compare the First and the Third Worlds and bring my knowledge to bear on the play’s characters and structure.

This play also came from my mother, a tough cactus of a woman that grew from the third world. It was my experience with her that informed my direction, my dramaturgy. Yes, we're here now. Yes, we look just like everybody else. But this is deceiving, because we, like many, many others you see on the streets of America (Mexicans, Muslims, Africans) have traveled a long, long way.

Do unto others as you would unto yourself. We teach our kids this, our students this, and yet strangely, it's completely forgotten when one country deals with another, when one president deals with another. Out of all the moral philosophies and religions, I cannot think of a greater law, truthfully defining what it means to be a good person. It's not just ambition that makes this world move. Sometimes the gentler things are more powerful."
Poster art for Beijing, California

Beijing, California contains three carefully interwoven plots which, over the course of nearly 40 years, explore different aspects of China's invasion of the United States after a series of natural disasters and financial meltdowns lead to the collapse of the American democracy as we now know it.
  • In 2010, James Cole (Garth Petal) and Zhang Kai (Wayne Lee) are political science majors in college, where they bond over beer, chess, and strategic board games like Go. While James likes to boast about how Americans brought electricity to remote parts of the Amazon jungle, Zhang Kai keeps asking him if any of the natives ever asked to have electricity. As their friendship deepens, cultural differences continue to influence their decisions. As James becomes a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who is having difficulty finding venture capital, his friend Zhang Kai tries to help him gain access to Han Zhouyun (Lisa Kang), a powerful Chinese trade minister. Unfortunately, Jimmy's American arrogance keeps getting in the way. Several years pass and the two men have become Presidents of their respective countries. With the United States deeply in debt and unable to pay its bills, China demands that the United Statse surrender and allow 300,000 Chinese "inspectors" to patrol American cities.
Zhang Kai (Wayne Lee) and James Cole (Garth Petal)
(Photo by: Guy Stilson)
  • In 2046, things have changed in San Francisco after America's surrender to China. An American family that was once financially comfortable can no longer pay its bills. Samantha (Erika Salazar) is forced into prostitution. Her brother Robert (Tom Lazur) manages to get a gardening job for Han Zhouyun and her husband, Han Meng (Stephen Hu). Their mother, Sandra (JanLee Marshall) is forced to pimp out her daughter, whose best client turns out to be Han Meng. Meanwhile, an American hustler prostituting himself as a real cowboy (Garth Petal) tries to negotiate with Feng Guohua (Wayne Lee), a horny Chinese who wants "the other white meat."
  • In 2048, Elaine (Jennifer Vo Le), who had once been the top administrative assistant to James Coles when he was a Silicon Valley hotshot, is now working as an interpreter for Han Zhouyun. San Francisco has been divided into militarized zones (much like Baghdad) and Americans need special passes to go beyond various border points like the Van Ness Gate. When Elaine witnesses a crime scene, she ends up in a difficult situation. The rules for getting a taxi are "first come, first served." However, Han Zhouyun expected a man to give up his ride for a powerful Chinese diplomat like herself and couldn't understand why the man refused to cooperate. Li Dazhao (Wayne Lee), a reporter trying to get the story out of Elaine, listens to her explanation that the man was not a criminal, but a doctor whose mother was dying in a hospital across town. Li Dazhao starts to put the moves on Elaine, tempting her with signed permission slips to stay out late. When Elaine discovers that she has become pregnant, she travels with Li Dazhao to a relocation camp in Central California, where she points him in the direction of a field dotted with land mines. To her surprise, she encounters a local farmer, her former boss James Cole, who at this point in his life is content merely to be able to eat a boiled potato.
With a running time of approximately 100 minutes, Beijing, California crams a tremendous amount of information into one evening. As the playwright, Paul Heller, explains:
"This play began with a discussion Duy and I had about what America would become if Vietnam (Duy's home country) were to occupy the U.S. Who would survive if favor and success depended on learning Vietnamese and adopting Asian mores? As we began our exploration, we switched the invading nation to China as such a scenario is easily imagined given today's headlines.

I began by making things up about how America would devolve, but then these events would appear in the news; for example, the financial meltdown here, our debt to China, Chinese authorities chastising Obama for America’s part in the global financial crisis, and the right-wing insistence that American democracy is the only valid political choice.

Two years of workshops followed in which Duy generously shared stories of his life and his insights about the U.S. to help me viscerally understand what life is like when people are displaced or live in third world poverty. Together, we composed scenarios to explore our questions. Actors improvised the scenes and Duy directed and deepened them. I used this work as inspiration to create the final script.

I am very grateful to the actors who gave their time to this project. During the process I learned a huge amount about the cultures from which they came. More surprising, however, was that by writing this play about losing American-ness, I realized more fully what it means to be an American."
If I have one major criticism of Beijing, California, it is that it is currently being presented as a two-act play, with the first two subplots contained in Act I. The three subplots each tell a powerful story and would actually gain strength if the evening were divided into three acts instead of two. I was particularly impressed by the work of Garth Petal, Wayne Lee, and Tom Lazur. Bruce Thierry Cheung's unit set and the archival videography by Huy Vu and Alan Chang contributed to a powerful evening of theatre.

Beijing, California is not a perfect play (it could easily survive about 10 minutes of cuts). But, from a sociopolitical standpoint, it is an important new drama that deserves subsequent productions (hopefully in a three-act version). Heller's drama deals with the kind of ideas that could easily make Glenn Beck's head explode. AATC's Executive Director, Darryl D. Chiang, stresses that:
Beijing, California is relevant not only to Asian Americans, but to all Americans. It makes us reconsider our history in Vietnam and our current actions in the Middle East, even as it eerily posits a very real future that stems from the financial tumult of the past years. This play is not abstract, like many futuristic pieces. It takes us into very personal stories that make us feel what it’s like to lose one’s country and one’s sense of self when faced with an overwhelming occupation and the poverty of being vanquished. It is fascinating to explore what’s left of American-ness when America’s power and privilege are stripped away.”
Performances of Beijing, California continue at Thick House through July 17 (you can order tickets here). In the meantime, here's a brief trailer:

No comments: