Sunday, February 12, 2017

A Plea for Compassion and Cultural Literacy

Long before Anthony Bourdain and a host of celebrity chefs made the pursuit of exotic foods an armchair adventure, American tourists had a strange reputation. Whether they were traveling in France, Japan, or other countries known for their culinary arts, many gravitated to their safety zone: McDonalds.

With the open-mindedness of the Obama administration gone from the White House, the rampant xenophobia exhibited by insecure, power-hungry white nationalists has resulted in a bungled refugee ban, threats to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities (as well as privatizing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting), and a new wave of anti-intellectualism.

The confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education tested millions of gag reflexes across the nation. From satirical articles like Grizzly Attacks School of Salmon -- Dozens Dead and Betsy DeVos Tosses $10 Million Into Capitol Reflecting Pool For Luck to Michelle Olson's A Thank You Letter to Betsy DeVos From a Public School Teacher, people have not held back in venting their opposition to Trump's blatantly rewarding rich and incompetent political hacks with jobs for which they are supremely unqualified.

The impact of Trump's refugee ban is being felt throughout the arts community, with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival having to process canceled ticket orders from groups of Canadian students who make annual treks to its theatres in Ashland, Oregon. Many international artists may end up canceling appearances in American cities because of the risks to themselves, their support staff, and their musicians.

Inspired by The Ghostlight Project, on January 19th, 2017 at 5:30 p.m. in each time zone across the United States, people gathered outside theaters to create a "light" for the dark times ahead and "to make or renew a pledge to stand for and protect the values of inclusion, participation, and compassion for everyone regardless of race, class, religion, country of origin, immigration status, (dis)ability, age, gender identity, or sexual orientation." Two weeks later, the leaders of multiple nonprofit theaters in the San Francisco Bay area released the following statement:
"We, the artistic and managing directors of Bay Area theaters, feel we must speak out against the executive order that would deny the freedom and safety that we know as Americans. This new generation of immigrants deserves the protection and opportunity that America has always provided. Our great American theaters would be far poorer without the authors, playwrights, actors, directors, technical staff, administrators, and audiences who come to us from all over the world, enriching our lives and the lives of those who experience our work.

Theater has always provided a bridge between cultures. There is no theater without empathy and compassion -- that is the very nature of what we do. We call on our government to show the compassion and generosity that have done so much to make the United States a haven for the oppressed and a beacon of freedom. We take our responsibility as global citizens extremely seriously and urge the President and his administration to rescind the executive order and reestablish an open exchange between artists and audiences from all over the world."
It's gotten so bad that Bill Maher could no longer restrain himself from venting about the tsunami of stupidity and insensitivity sweeping the nation.

Ironically, trying to put a damper on the arts only makes artists more determined to use their creativity to fight against ignorance. The 2017 CAAMFest will feature a screening of a poignant full-length animation feature entitled Window Horses: The Poetic Persian Epiphany of Rosie Ming. The promotional material describe the film's story as follows:
“Rosie Ming, a young Canadian poet, is invited to perform at a poetry festival in Shiraz, Iran. She lives at home with her over-protective Chinese grandparents and has never been anywhere by herself. Once in Iran, she finds herself in the company of poets and Persians, all who tell her stories that force her to confront her past: the Iranian father she assumed abandoned her and the nature of poetry itself. It’s about building bridges between cultural and generational divides. It’s about being curious. Staying open. And finding your own voice through the magic of poetry.

Rosie goes on an unwitting journey of forgiveness, reconciliation, and perhaps above all, understanding, through learning about her father’s past, her own cultural identity, and her responsibility to it. This is a film filled with poetry and stories. While the narrative of the film is presented in one particular style, the poems and histories will be created by different artists, to both accentuate and blend the myriad of differences in cultures, philosophies, time frames and poetry. It is a film about identity and the imagination. This film is our small effort to try and add a little more peace, love, and understanding to our increasingly complex and conflicted world through art, poetry, history, and culture.”

* * * * * * * * *
If timing is everything, then the world premiere of A Thousand Splendid Suns received a blessing in disguise from the Trump administration. Based on the 2007 best-selling novel by Khaled Hosseini and adapted by Ursula Rani Sarma, the play puts faces on people whose lives have been torn apart in Afghanistan and focuses on the plight of women and girls in a severely repressive culture.

Rasheed (Haysam Kadri) and Laila (Nadine Malouf) in a scene
from A Thousand Splendid Suns (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

This co-production between American Conservatory Theater and Theatre Calgary has been spearheaded and directed by Carey Perloff, with handsome sets designed by Ken Macdonald, costumes by Linda Cho, and lighting by Robert Wierzel. Unlike many dramas, which might rely on a local dramaturg, the creative team also includes cultural consultant Humaira Ghilzai, who explains that:
“The main role of a cultural consultant is to bring cultural literacy to a project in order to create an authentic portrayal of Afghan people, their customs, and their languages. I work closely with the playwright, director, costume designer, set designer, props team, marketing team, voice coach, and actors to achieve authenticity in every aspect of the production. You might say a headscarf is just a headscarf, but I’m here to tell you there’s much more to it.”
Denmo Ibrahim (Fariba) and Kate Rigg (Mariam) in a scene from
A Thousand Splendid Suns (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Hosseini's epic novel focuses on multiple generations of Afghan women struggling to survive in modern-day Kabul.
  • After a mortar shell destroys her home, Laila (Nadine Malouf), finds herself unmarried and pregnant. With her Tajik parents dead and their residence destroyed, she is forced to marry her older neighbor, Rasheed (Haysam Kadri), in order to survive.
  • As she recovers from her wounds, Laila bonds with Rasheed's first wife, Mariam (Kate Rigg), a Pashtun woman born out of wedlock who has suffered several miscarriages and long years of domestic abuse by her husband.
  • After Laila gives birth to a baby girl which she names Azizah (Nikita Tewani), her daughter's thirst for learning is threatened when the Taliban seizes control of Kabul. When Laila goes into labor with her second child, a boy who will be named Zalmai (Neel Noronha), an emergency Caesarean section is performed by a female doctor (Denmo Ibrahim) who refuses to wear a burqa while performing surgery.
  • Throughout their adult lives, Laila and Mariam are haunted by memories of their mothers, Fariba and Nana (both played by Denmo Ibrahim), who tried to warn them about the evils of men.

Because of its status as a melting pot whose inhabitants celebrate diversity, Bay area audiences may be more open to stories from exotic cultures. Many other Americans, however,  might be shocked by the misogyny and brutality directed at women by the men portrayed in A Thousand Splendid Suns. As Perloff explains:
"War has a way of creating strange bedfellows. When Laila and Mariam are thrust together in Rasheed’s house, it is impossible to predict that, over the years, the women will save each other again and again from the depredations of a violent husband and an even more violent culture. Their journey seemed ripe for theatricalization."
Haysam Kadri (Rasheed), Nadine Malouf (Laila) and Kate Rigg
(Mariam) in a scene from A Thousand Splendid Suns
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

As the play begins, the audience is captivated by the sight of people being dragged across the stage while seated on large pieces of fabric. One of them is David Coulter, who wrote the music for A Thousand Splendid Suns and is first seen playing a musical saw.
“I own maybe a dozen different saws (including a gold-plated and rhinestone-encrusted one made in 1921). For a carpenter’s hand tool, a saw is capable of producing a vast and wide array of sonic possibilities. When played well, it is capable of indescribable beauty. It contains passion and tenderness. The opposite extremes are also possible: it can be used to create horrific and excruciatingly ugly sounds. All my saws are essentially produced with the intention of being used musically. I often play readymades (regular woodworking saws as found in a store). But for precision and the concert stage and recording studio, I nearly always use a saw made by a company called Mussehl and Westphal based in East Troy, Wisconsin.”

“As a sound artist, I try to create sound meditation. A musical exploration of resonance. Playing with time. A creation of space. An exploration of emotions to create vivid images," Coulter explains. "For A Thousand Splendid Suns, I wanted to create sonic backdrops as the concrete thing that will be there every time, but to allow and factor in a methodology whereby I can still keep myself fresh by playing variations of themes and phrases. I will obviously be playing saw, but also bells, octave violin, drums, various jaw harps, thumb pianos, pitch pipes, some new metal and water percussion instruments, old rusty springs, etc. There are also little bits of flute and saxophone, played by Ralph Carney, that will be creeping in here and there. It is obviously crucial to have concrete and sometimes countable elements in the score for precise cueing of lighting and scene changes as well as for actors who will be expecting a sonic familiarity to each performance.”

David Coulter playing a musical saw

How does Coulter balance his technique with the cultural demands of the play? “I have listened to a huge amount of Afghan music and have closely researched the sounds of the country, but I have made a very conscious decision not to replicate or imitate what I have heard," he says. "The music of the country is so intricate and varied by region that it would be a very tall order to create something that would do it justice and not fall into parody. I have drawn on rhythms and modes and tried to create my own vocabulary and palette of sounds from which to draw. The most crucial thing as a composer for this story was to make sounds that reflect the undercurrent of the characters of the piece, not to try and make my own version of Afghan music.”

David Coulter (right) performing on a musical saw during the
opening sequence of A Thousand Splendid Suns (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Coulter's contribution to the production (backed by the superb sound design by Jake Rodriguez) goes a long way toward establishing the soundscape for A Thousand Splendid Suns. This is especially critical considering the fact that Hosseini's novel initially gained popularity through the power of its words. In adapting the book for the stage, Ursula Rani Sarma and Carey Perloff whittled away some of the novel's scenes to focus on the relationship between Mariam and Laila. As the playwright explains:
“The theater is one of the best mediums with which to explore complex human relationships like the ones at the center of A Thousand Splendid Suns. It’s about the immense strength and endurance of women and how they can survive tremendous suffering to keep those they love alive. It is also about how love can grow and sustain the human spirit beyond all pain and hardship, even in the darkest of times and places. There simply isn’t enough room in a play to go into depth explaining the complicated history and culture of Afghanistan, so I chose to include only what was necessary to best serve the characters and their evolution throughout the piece.

As in the novel, the relationship between Mariam and Laila (trapped in a violent home, reaching out to each other) forms the spine of the play. The difference is that, on the stage, the characters will take on a physical existence while an audience bears witness to their extraordinary journey. From a practical perspective, the majority of the conflict unfolds indoors, in confined spaces, so many of these scenes make for great theatre because they are dramatic, tense, and emotionally engaging.”
Laila (Nadine Malouf) and Mariam (Kate Rigg) tend to baby Azizah in
a scene from A Thousand Splendid Suns (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The result allows for a surprising amount of lyricism to co-exist with Rasheed's domestic violence; even allowing Mariam's execution to provide a sense of redemption in death similar to Marguerite's transformation in Faust. Compare that to the style of heavy war porn on display in this trailer from the as-yet unreleased screen adaptation of A Thousand Splendid Suns.

With several actors (Barzin Akhavan, Jason Kapoor, Denmo Ibrahim) cast in multiple roles, Perloff has done an excellent job of keeping the narrative flowing. As always, Ibrahim is a commanding presence onstage while Pomme Koch's portrayals of both the young and mature Tariq are especially touching.

Pomme Koch (Tariq) and Nadine Malouf (Laila) in a scene
from A Thousand Splendid Suns (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Haysam Kadri plays the abusive Rasheed as well as the aged, kinder Talib with equal skill while Nikita Tewani shines as Azizah. However, the evening's suffering rests on the shoulders of Nadine Malouf as Laila and Kate Rigg as Mariam, with both artists doing impressive work to show the emotional suffering and intellectually stifling treatment of women in a severely oppressive, male-dominated culture.

Talib (Haysam Kadri) shows Azizah, Tariq, Kalmai, and Laila where
Mariam grew up in a scene from A Thousand Splendid Suns
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Performances of A Thousand Splendid Suns continue at American Conservatory Theater through February 26 (click here for tickets).

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