Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Try Walking A Mile In Their Shoes

Many Americans experience culture shock when traveling abroad. Some tourists expect these moments to revolve around earth-shaking events but, all too often, they appear in tiny flashes which remind people that "We're not in Kansas anymore." Some examples from my past travels:
  • On a 1986 visit to an opera friend's home in Cumbria's scenic Lake District, my host and I stopped at a local fish and chips shop for lunch. Failing to understand that the fish fillets had been dipped in batter before being lowered into a deep fat fryer, I could not grasp why the signs said "battered" fish. The term "jacket potato" was similarly confusing.
  • On a visit to Aarhus in 1987 to attend performances of the RING cycle at the Danish National Opera, I entered the theatre comforted by the publicist's assurance that the RING would be performed with Supertitles. What he hadn't told me was that the Supertitles would be written in Danish rather than English.
  • The following week, after a performance of Carmen at the Royal Opera House in Stockholm, I joined some opera fans I had met in Aarhus for a post-performance dinner at an Italian restaurant. When the waiter described the house salad as being served with "Rhode Island dressing," I told him that, having lived in Rhode Island for three years, I could assure him there was no such thing. As he listed the ingredients I laughed and told him that what he had just described was what Americans call "Russian dressing."
  • During my 1989 visit to Luxor to tour some ancient Egyptian ruins, I was shocked to discover that my reservation was nowhere to be found in the hotel's computer system. Lacking sufficient funds to pay for a room upgrade (and not understanding the critical role of baksheesh in the local economy), I ended up spending two nights listening to donkeys and goats braying outside my window. On my EgyptAir flight from Aswan back to Cairo, I was surprised to see the pilot leave the door to the cockpit ajar (he even asked an off-duty employee if he would like to join the pilots up front for the duration of the flight).
Visiting the Sphinx and Great Pyramids in 1989
When children of immigrants visit their parents' city of origin -- or when audiences are exposed to stories from their homeland -- their experiences often expose them to cultural differences that rarely appear in travel brochures. When seen in film or onstage, such experiences can become important "teachable moments."

Traveling from London to the 1988 Brighton Arts Festival

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Most documentaries focus on a noble cause, a burning passion, or a remarkable phenomenon. By contrast, Laura Asherman’s film about Indian-American stand-up comedian Tushar Singh seems much more like a vanity project.

Raised in Huntsville, Alabama by immigrant parents, Singh was the only Indian child in his grade in elementary school – an awkward, chubby youngster who felt as if he always stuck out “like a big brown thumb.” Though he spoke Hindi at home with his family and sat through his profoundly intellectual father’s weekly astrological readings, Tushar eventually found a way to make friends with the local rednecks as well as other Desi children in the Huntsville area.

Upon entering Georgia Tech and being exposed to a much more progressive American ideology than that of his conservative parents, Tushar began to question certain aspects of Indian culture (the caste system, arranged marriages, political corruption) as he spent more time on a college campus.

American Hasi (which will be screened next month during the 3rd i Film Festival) begins in Los Angeles where the adult Singh has developed some solid friendships and hosts a weekly show at a local comedy club. Freed from financial obligations after being fired from his day job, he decides to embark on an international journey to see how well his particular brand of stand-up humor will be received during a 35-day tour of India.

As an Indian-American comedian eager to make people laugh, Singh starts his five-week trip in Mumbai and finishes up in New Delhi before heading home to Los Angeles. What Tushar hopes to learn is (a) whether he has what it takes to make it as a full-time stand-up comic, (b) whether his ambition and naivete may only take him as far as having a fun hobby, and (c) whether his material is strong enough to give Tushar the kind of cultural advantage that would allow him to relocate to India and attempt to build a career on two continents.

Comedian Tushar Singh and his mother kill time
in an airport in a scene from American Hasi

Following the death of his father, Tushar’s mother (who readily admits to being embarrassed by her son's jokes about anal sex) accompanies him on his Indian adventure. In addition to documenting Singh’s visits to the Taj Mahal, several Indian comedy clubs, and the village where his father was born, Asherman films Singh’s interviews with successful Indian comedians such as Russell Peters and Vir Das (who offer supportive but realistic advice on how to improve his act).

Large parts of Asherman’s cinema verité documentary feel formulaic and, to be honest, Singh does not come across as a particularly strong talent. Here's the trailer:

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Golden Thread Productions is currently presenting the 2019 ReOrient Festival of Short Plays, an annual program inspired by the need to include the countries and peoples covered by the company’s broad and inclusive definition of the Middle East. As Executive Artistic Director Torange Yeghiazarian (who grew up as an Armenian minority in Iran and was raised as both a Christian and Muslim by her mixed family) explains:
“While I have always wanted Golden Thread’s work to reflect the many layers of our identity, perspective, and aesthetic, no amount of clever programming can fully reflect the complexities of our lives. Each ReOrient becomes a litmus of our collective state of mind, which is, by itself, an impressive purpose to serve. ReOrient always leaves us with more questions than answers. This year’s festival is no different.”
“What stands out most is the singular voice of women. Women playwrights and women characters speak to us about privilege, power, and the improbability of fulfillment. Veteran playwrights and newcomers alike struggle with finding the right answers. They ask what happens when women (particularly ‘ethnic’ women) take power. How do we gain agency and achieve personal fulfillment? What happens when we have no control? Or when our values do not reflect those of the world we live in? These are profound questions, particularly when addressing such universal concerns as health care, immigration, and war. How much control do we really have over such matters? If we understand privilege to imply access to the multitudes of choices, then how do we exercise those choices?”

With set design by Kate Boyd, costumes by Brooke Jennings, lighting by Dylan Feldman, and sound design by James Ard, this 20th anniversary ReOrient Festival features a lineup of seven short plays of which four are world premieres, two are West Coast premieres, and one is a U.S. premiere. Often, during such anthology programs, one or two actors may stand out above the others. During the 2019 festival that actor is the versatile Atosa Babaoff, whose burning focus and dramatic intensity bring to mind the young Kathy Najimy. When Babaoff "takes stage," it's impossible to take one's eyes off her. When she is not onstage, there is a noticeable drop in energy.

Atosa Babaoff stars in The Grievance Club
(Photo by: David Allen)

Babaoff kicks off the evening with her stunning performance in Iraqi-British playwright Rendah Heywood's provocative short play entitled The Grievance Club. As a highly successful investment banker, she is being vetted for membership in an exclusive club for people of obscene wealth where she will be allowed to fulfill her most extreme fantasies. As a single woman who has constantly been scorned and rejected by the “Old Boys’ Club” in finance and other professional circles, Atosa’s anonymous woman knows exactly what she wants: to beat the living shit out of rich old white men. But when the perfect submissive shows up and offers her a baseball bat to do the job, she discovers that satisfying her bloodlust can have unexpected consequences. With Amitis Rossoukh supplying the offstage voice of a female interviewer, Lisa Marie Rollins has directed this fiery demonstration of speaking truth to power with sadism and sarcasm to spare. Once again, the audience is warned to “Beware your fantasy, it might just come true.”

Babaoff returns to close the evening as Maysoon in the world premiere of Brass Knuckles. Directed by Torange Yeghiazarian, this monologue by Egyptian-American playwright Yussef El Guindi introduces audiences to a Muslim woman as she gives herself a pep talk in order to muster the courage to leave her home and walk freely on the streets of her city. Wearing a hijab, the woman may seem like an easy target, but any fool who threatens her will feel the pain inflicted by her secret weapon of self-defense. It's interesting to note that El Guindi's play was inspired by the 2017 attack by a white nationalist against two Muslim women  traveling in a MAX light rail train in Portland, Oregon.

Atosa Babaoff (Maysoon) is fully prepared to defend
herself in Brass Knuckles (Photo by: David Allen)

In the world premiere of The Book of Mima (written by Naomi Wallace and directed by Rebecca Novick), Lawrence Radecker performs an eerie monologue which begins as the voice of an innocent bird flying through the skies above Yemen when it spots a young girl on the ground who is engrossed in reading a children’s storybook. Through a keen use of magical realism (aided by James Ard’s subtle sound design), the voice slowly realizes that it is not a bird but, instead, the mind of an airborne military weapon that has targeted Mima and is rapidly drawing closer as its altitude drops. From a purely technological standpoint, a sentient Tomahawk missile isn’t that far removed from Dave (the talking computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey). The only problem is that, although this missile seems to have a conscience, it cannot alter its course.

Lawrence Radecker performs an eerie monologue in
The Book of Mima (Photo by: David Allen)

The world premiere of The Basement (a political drama by Turkish-Kurdish writer and filmmaker Mustafa Kaymak, directed by Michael French) was more notable for the bloody body bags being dragged across the stage by an anonymous soldier (Ali-Moosa Mirza) than the bureaucratic stonewalling of a Kurdish journalist named Ayca (Amitis Rossoukh) by a police Lieutenant (Lawrence Radecker) who is all bluff and bluster. When the tables are turned on him and Ayca becomes judge, jury, and probable executioner, the Lieutenant claims to have “just been following orders.”

Amitis Rossoukh (Ayca) and Lawrence Radecker (Lieutenant)
in a scene from The Basement (Photo by: David Allen)

The world premiere of Palestinian-American playwright Betty Shamieh's strange two-hander entitled An Echo of Laughter (also directed by Michael French) features Sofia Ahmad as a Palestinian teacher who has gotten into trouble with the authorities after attempting to teach The Diary of Anne Frank to her pupils in Bethlehem. Originally commissioned by the Landestheater Linz in Linz, Austria, the story is based on the experience of the playwright’s distant cousin, whose students transformed their diaries into a play called Our Diaries Through the Wall (which they performed at the 2005 Edinburgh Fringe Festival). Lawrence Radecker appears as a leering, chuckling, and ghoulish Adolf Hitler who eavesdrops on the teacher's regrets that today's world won't be the least bit interested in diaries written by children in the Middle East.

Poster art for the 2019 ReOrient Festival of Short Plays
(Photos by: Jesse Sutterley)

I was less impressed by Noor and Hadi Go to Hogwarts (a short play by the Artistic Director of Noor Theatre, Lameece Issaq, and directed by Rebecca Novick) which depicts two terrified and exhausted Syrian children who have become hopelessly trapped in a Middle Eastern war zone. Against all odds, they cling to a thread of hope as 10-year-old Noor (Sofia Ahmad) reads a passage from one of J.K. Rowling’s novels to the dying eight-year-old Hadi (Ali-Moosa Mirza).

Ali-Moosa Mirza (Hadi) and Sofia Ahmad (Noor) portray two
children in Noor and Hadi Go To Hogwarts (Photo by: David Allen)

I also had mixed feelings about Iranian-American writer Niku Sharei's absurdist fantasy entitled In Spenglic. Directed by Lisa Marie Rollins, this world premiere toed the line between a Conehead-inspired satire and a Twilight Zone nightmare. Set in the fictional nation of Spenglia, it followed a new immigrant named Meetoo (Sofia Ahmad) who must learn how to assimilate into a bizarre corporate culture where, in order to retain healthcare insurance for herself and her child, she must agree to relinquish her identity to a fickle corporation.

Along with co-workers, KellA (Atosa Babaoff) and ShelB (Amitia Rossoukh), Meetoo's predicament bears an uncanny resemblance to that of so many independent contractors driving for ride share companies like Uber and Lyft who struggle to survive despite a keen awareness that a corporation would ditch them in the blink of an eye if they could be replaced by autonomous vehicles that don’t require employee benefits. While Sharei’s satire benefited immensely from Atosa Babaoff’s performance, her script needs some careful pruning.

Performances of the 2019 Re-Orient Festival of Short Plays continue through November 17 at the Potrero Stage (click here for tickets).

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