Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Multiculturalism Is A Key Factor in the Arts

In a recent column in The New York Times, associate editorial page editor David Leonhardt asked readers for suggestions about which voices are under-represented in today's national media. My suggestion was for the Times to try to counter the knee-jerk tendency to only reach out to Christianists for political commentary and ignore insights that could be gained from such non-Christian religions and cultures as Buddhism, Islamism, and Hinduism (whose demographics within the United States keep growing).

With Paul Ryan's recent request for Father Patrick J. Conroy (the Roman Catholic priest who dared to invoke the poor in his daily prayers as the official chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives) to resign, and the Trump administration's blatant bias in favor of white supremacists, it's important for American media to widen its understanding of how different cultures learn to work together. One of the great gifts of the arts is their ability to broaden people's horizons (it's remarkable what one can learn while viewing life through a different lens).

While watching a screener of My Life With James Dean (a poignant LGBT-themed film shown at the 2018 San Francisco International Film Festival), I was struck by how differently Dominique Choisy's film approached a coming out/coming-of-age story involving a teenager and an older gay man than Luca Guadagnino's recent screen adaptation of AndrĂ© Aciman's novel, Call Me By Your Name. A recent BBC News video feature entitled Can Music Bridge Thailand's Sectarian Divide? showed how Muslim and Hindu music students performing with the Yala City Municipality Youth Orchestra have been able to find common ground and build new friendships thanks to their mutual pursuit of musical excellence.

Two programs new to the Bay area help to coax audiences out of their comfort zones so they can see life through the eyes of people with whom they might never socialize.

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In recent years, the Center for Asian-American Media has taken a more pro-active role in producing documentaries, shorts, and other films about Asian-American culture. A fascinating short directed by Steve Arounsack entitled Halfway Home: Asian-American Artists in the Central Valley will receive its world premiere at CAAMFest 2018. Arounsack's documentary makes two critical points:
  • In a state reputed to have the sixth largest economy in the world, it's difficult to pull the media's attention away from California's two largest cultural hubs: Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area.
  • Although artistic practices may be the first traditions to be shed as immigrants arrive in a new country and attempt to assimilate into a strange culture, new artistic talents are born wherever they settle down. With Central California's identity largely associated with agriculture, some of the immigrant communities that have taken root from Chico to Bakersfield have put a great deal of effort into celebrating their ethnic heritage.
Poster art for CAAM's new documentary entitled
Halfway Home: Asian American Art in the Central Valley

Back in 2015, CAAM produced and presented the world premiere of Changing Season: On the Masumoto Family Farm (which was later shown on PBS). In that documentary, viewers were introduced to Dave Masumoto's daughter, Nikiko, who earned her Bachelor's degree in Gender and Women’s Studies from the University of California at Berkeley and her Master's degree in Performance as Public Practice from the University of Texas at Austin before returning to the family farm in Del Rey, California. As a fourth generation Japanese American, Nikiko has become active in the Yonsei Memory Project for preserving the memories of Japanese Americans. The following two videos offer a sample of her skills as a playwright and storytelling artist who shares the tales and traditions of Japanese Americans while spreading awareness of the Japanese-American Internment camps of the 1940s.

One segment which I found particularly intriguing was an interview with Lon Chan, a costume designer for Cambodian Arts in Stockton. His devotion to keeping his cultural heritage alive is seen in the intricately designed dance costumes and fashions he creates and his attention to detail.

Classical Cambodian dancers are seen in a segment of
Halfway Home: Asian American Art in the Central Valley

The most animated segment of Arounsack's half-hour documentary focuses on Harjeet Singh and Paramjeet Kaur, who share their passion for bhangra (a traditional Punjabi dance) by teaching it to members of the Sikh community in Yuba City, where the first Sikh parade was held on November 9, 1980.

Although Paramjeet teaches classes in giddha (a traditional dance for women). Harjeet readily confesses that bhangra is his passion. With a steady source of income from his work as a software engineer, he started teaching bhangra in 1995. Over two decades, his initial group of 12 students blossomed to more than 200. While teaching in English and Punjabi, he references certain dance moves to similar movements in soccer and basketball in order to help his younger male dancers master the finer points of bhangra.

Bhangra teacher Harjeet Singh

"Bhangra is a folk dance of Punjab and an integral part of Punjabi culture. It is a vibrant dance with dhol (drums), boliyan (lyrical couplets), and is typically performed during the harvest season and festive occasions," he explains. "Bhangra is often used to describe many different and distinct folk dances: bhangra, giddha, jhummer, etc. On Baisakhi, the harvest festival, entire villages fire up in the spirit of bhangra."

Harjeet Singh and Paramjeet Kaur perform banghra-style dances in a
scene from Halfway Home: Asian American Art in the Central Valley

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Golden Thread Productions (in association with Turtle Key Arts and AIK Productions) is presenting the American premiere of  Love, Bombs & Apples. Thanks to the artistic vision of the company's Founding Artistic Director, Torange Yeghiazarian, the show's playwright is currently a resident artist at Golden Thread. As Yeghiazarian explains:
“When I first read Hassan Abdulrazzak’s writing, I was struck by his intellectual world view and self-deprecrating humor. The predilection of his characters for neurotic self-analysis is both a reflection of and a reaction to European and American society’s implicit condemnation of the Middle Eastern male. His dark humor lays out a tricky pathway to understanding the oppressive context in which many a bad decision has been made. Love, Bombs & Apples broaches hot topics that feel close to home with a more hard-hitting and unapologetic tone.”

Directed by Rosamunde HuttLove, Bombs & Apples is a one-man show starring Asif Khan, who performs four breathtaking monologues in a dramatic tour de force. Khan first met the playwright during his third year of study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London in 2009. As he recalls:
“My teacher, Lloyd Trott, kindly asked him to write a monologue for me to perform in my showcase. Within a few days, Hassan sent me a five-page monologue titled Love In the Time of Barriers. This would become the first character in Love, Bombs & Apples. The writing was brilliantly relevant, funny, and political. I could only perform two minutes of it for my showcase, but I loved his writing and wanted to perform the whole piece at some point in the future. In 2014, I asked Hassan if he’d like to meet for coffee and discuss doing a full-length version of Love in the Time of Barriers. During our chat in the sun at Covent Garden, he showed me two other pieces titled Level 12 and The Apple. We discussed the possibility of doing a show using all three monologues and brainstormed possible directors we’d like to work with.”
Asif Khan in a scene from Love, Bombs & Apples
“In January 2015, Hassan’s script was selected as one of 12 new plays to receive a reading in Arcola Theatre’s PlayWROUGHT Festival. This was a great opportunity to test the format in front of a live audience, which led to a week’s run at the Arcola as part of their Shubbak Festival. In 2016 we had an exciting few months taking the show around the United Kingdom and returning for a full four-week run at the Arcola Theatre. 2017 provided an opportunity to take the play to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where it played at Summerhall for a month as part of Arab Arts Focus. 2018 brings us to our latest U.K. tour and this incredibly exciting production in San Francisco. As an actor it’s a dream to work on such fabulous writing with a talented and generous team of people.” 
Asif Khan in a scene from Love, Bombs & Apples

Abdulrazzak's play focuses on four men who get to experience tragicomic revelations owing to their desperation and cluelessness.
  • In Love in the Time of Barriers, a horny Palestinian actor learns there’s more to English girls than pure sex appeal. After meeting an attractive woman at a party and learning that she is staying at a convent, he decides that the best place he can take her is the barrier wall that separates Palestine from Israel (since no one goes there at night, the wall seems like the perfect spot to get laid). Luckily, when police headlights catch the couple having sex, he resists the urge to scream "Let's fuck for Palestine!" 
  • In Level 42, a Pakistani-born academic living in London (who is surprised that Kurt Cobain still reminds him of Osama bin Laden) gets a rude awakening when he becomes a terror suspect in the eyes of Britain's intelligence forces. After finishing the lengthy manuscript for his novel, the naive writer decides to send copies of a manuscript longer than War and Peace to numerous media outlets. He soon finds himself in an interrogation room desperately trying to explain that the shopping list for weapons he included in his novel was meant to be "poetic."
Cover art for Love, Bombs & Apples
  • In The Apple, a British youth obsessed with obtaining an iPhone from the Apple Store learns that the object of his desire might not have the magical powers he imagined.
  • And finally, in Landing Strip, a horny New York Jew who wants his girlfriend to shave her bushy genital area in order to spice up their sex life chooses the worst possible time to make his request. Even more shocking is her response -- after calling him a Zionist pig (two words which he doesn't think would seem well matched) she starts screaming that "children just died in a bomb attack in Gaza and you're fantasizing about turning my cunt into an F-16 landing strip?"
Watching Asif Khan's riveting portrayals of four deeply conflicted men with different accents, body language, problem-solving skills, and levels of lust is like sitting beside a world-class musician who has mastered the pacing and technique required by a demanding and complex piece of music. Not only do Abdulrazzak's characters come to life with a breathtaking urgency in Khan's hands, the actor's skill as a shapeshifter allows him to make glorious use of the opportunities the playwright has given him without ever diminishing the magic of Abdulrazzak's writing.

Performances of Love, Bombs & Apples continue through May 6 at the Potrero Stage (click here for tickets). To order a copy of the play from Amazon, click here.  Here's the trailer:

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