ReOrienting One's Thoughts on Immigration

11/27/2017 05:06 pm ET
"Most Thanksgiving menus today have hardly anything in common with the 17th-century Plymouth Colony meal they commemorate. But there are some culinary echoes from the 19th century, when the American national holiday officially began. On Thanksgiving, Americans are more likely to eat 19th-century-style puddings than at any other time of the year. On some American tables, Indian pudding, sweet potato pudding or corn pudding make an annual appearance. By the early 20th century, new knowledge about nutrition science, combined with an obsessive (but misinformed) interest in digestion, fueled widespread 'expert' condemnation of dishes featuring a range of ingredients mixed together. This was due, in large part, to xenophobia; by then, many white Americans had come to associate mixed foods with immigrants. Instead, reformers insisted with great confidence (but scant evidence) that it was healthier to eat simple foods with few ingredients: meals where meats and plain vegetables were clearly separated. People started to view savory puddings as both unhealthy and old-fashioned."

If the first year of the Trump administration has proved anything, it is that xenophobia remains a powerful force in American culture. With so many speakers of indigenous languages dying off, I always like to recommend Aaron Lansky's delightful book, Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books, to people seeking inspiration on how to keep their ethnic heritage alive.

Poster art for <strong><em>Outwitting History</em></strong>
Poster art for Outwitting History

Another way is to keep the art of storytelling alive. Most of Hawaiian history has been passed down from generation to generation in the form of oral histories and the chants that accompany hula kahiko. By making history during the 2017 election, minority candidates helped to increase the awareness of America's continuing legacy as a cultural "melting pot." Openly transgender candidate Danica Roem and Vietnamese refugee Kathy Tran won seats in the Virginia House of Delegates. Andrea Jenkins(an openly transgender person of color) won a seat on the Minneapolis City Council.

At the municipal level, Ravinder Bhalla became the first Sikh to be elected Mayor of Hoboken, New Jersey; Jenny Durkan became the first lesbian elected as Mayor of Seattle, Washington; Michelle Kaufusi became the first woman elected as Mayor of Provo, Utah; and Vi Lyles became the first African-American woman elected as Mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina. Melvin Carter III became the first African-American elected as Mayor of Saint Paul, Minnesota; a Hispanic woman (Michelle De La Isla) was elected as Mayor of Topeka, Kansas; and a Liberian refugee (Wilmot Collins) was elected Mayor of Helena, Montana.

While Wikipedia identifies six Asian-American dance companies, ten Asian-American comedy troupes (with such names as Asian Moms, Cold Tofu, Pork Filled Players, and Stir-Friday Night), and more than 30 Asian-American theatre companies, the Bay area is home to Bindlestiff Studio, En Acte Arts, Eth-Noh-Tec, Ferocious Lotus, Krea, NAATAK, Stanford Asian American Theatre Project, Theatre of Yugen at Noh Space, Theatre Rice, and Youth for Asian Theatre.

As part of its ReOrient 2017 Festival, San Francisco's Golden Thread Productions is celebrating its first collaboration with Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA), an international service organization founded in 1985 which is dedicated to the practice, promotion, advocacy, and education of the field of dramaturgy. This new partnership, led by Iranian-American dramaturg Nakissa Etemad, has been designed to provide ReOrient 2017 with a team of five dramaturgs who can bring their expertise to new play development, research, and contextualization. In her program note, Torange Yeghiarazarian (the founding artistic director of Golden Thread Productions) asks:

“Why do we ReOrient? As a small theatre company that produces only one or two mainstage productions a year, there is no way for us to really reflect the cultural, religious, linguistic, artistic, and aesthetic diversity of the Middle East. ReOrient is unique not only in its vision of cultural diversity but also for encouraging artistic collaboration and experimentation. Many of this year’s plays are set here in the United States and deal with simple domestic issues that have profound meaning in the context of an immigrant family. There is always the concern that, because of our long lead time, some of the plays will lose their urgency. But every time I’m reminded that artists are tuned into what Jung called the collective unconscious, producing primal images and ideas both familiar and surprising. To me, this reflects our struggle with our place in this country. These are stories you are unlikely to encounter anywhere else.”
Torange Yeghiarazarian of Golden Thread Productions
Torange Yeghiarazarian of Golden Thread Productions

Often, when I attend an "anthology" program consisting of a half dozen short plays produced by companies like Playground or the Left Coast Theatre Company, the odds are that two plays will be impressive, two will show promise but need a lot of work, and the remaining plays will either be poorly conceived or severely underdeveloped. The seven plays presented during ReOrient 2017's program blew that formula to smithereens. Instead of one or two impressive works, all seven were superbly written powerhouse dramas -- the kind of work any audience would be thrilled to experience. That's a rare accomplishment for which Yeghiarazarian and Evren Odcikin (who produced ReOrient 2017) rightfully earned and deserve a continued standing ovation.

* * * * * * * * *

Based on poetry by Junichi P. Semitsu, Shelter features the voices of Shoresh Alaudini, Nida Fuad Khalil, and Mikiko Uesugi woven into a stage soundscape adapted by Torange Yeghiazarian and James Ard. With no actors visible onstage, the audience's attention is divided between listening to the disembodied voices and examining the ghostly elements of Kate Boyd's unit set, which consists of numerous doors used to represent the physical, emotional, and spiritual transitions of immigrants as they exit their native lands and arrive in the United States.

Semitsu's poem captures the love and uncertainties faced by a mixed-race couple who grew up in Hiroshima and Beirut and must struggle to maintain a long distance relationship before they can settle down in one place. With a strained musicality, the voices seem equally applicable to couples who must find their true love (bashert) online or seek refuge in a new land that simultaneously welcomes and frightens them.

Kate Boyd&#39;s set design for <strong><em>Shelter</em></strong>
(Photo by: David Allen)
Kate Boyd's set design for Shelter

Written by E.H. Benedict and poignantly directed by Sara Razavi, War on Terror reflects an airport ritual which can easily unnerve any traveler (especially during the holiday season). In order to fly from central Pennsylvania to a regional hub so that they can connect to another flight en route to a wedding in Chicago, Mr. Sadat (Mohamed Chakmakchi) and his mother (Bella Warda) must pass through a metal detector being manned by two TSA agents: Darlene (Jessica Lea Risco) and Junior (Stephen Kanaski).

While Junior is young, more considerate, and more broadminded than his superior, Darlene is a paranoid, stereotypical "Ugly American" convinced there could be a terrorist hiding under any kind of outfit that she herself would not wear. The fact that Mr. Sadat is a doctor does not impress her. The fact that his elderly, stubborn mother doesn't speak English and is obviously agitated (due to stress and fear of flying) sets off alarm bells in Darlene's bigoted mind, triggering the kind of radical reaction in which a frightened security guard invokes every clause in the training manual to make life miserable for someone she perceives as "the other." Even after Mrs. Sadat manages to pass through the metal detector (with help from Junior, who says that she reminds him of his grandmother), Darlene remains hopeful that something might happen which could prevent the Sadats from reaching their destination.

Stephen Kanaski, Bella Warda, and Mohamed Chakmakchi appear in <strong><em>War on Terror</em></strong>
(Photo by: David Allen)
Stephen Kanaski, Bella Warda, and Mohamed Chakmakchi appear in War on Terror

Sevan K. Greene's A Is For Ali (also directed by Sara Razavi) depicts a young Arab-American couple celebrating their anniversary while arguing about whether or not it is too early to choose a name for their unborn child. Although Naomi (Atosa Babaoff) prefers to wait until they know what the infant's gender will be, Waleed (Mohamed Chakmakchi) has already made a list of his favorites. There's just one problem. Having grown up as a distinct minority child in Colorado, Naomi would prefer to choose a name which will not force their child to always have to "explain" a name that does not sound obviously American or "white." By contrast, having grown up in a large Arab-American community, Waleed (who goes by the nickname "Wally" at work) has trouble understanding his wife's concerns.

Naomi (Atosa Babaoff) and Waleed (Mohamed Chakmakchi) view an ultrasound video of their baby in <strong><em>A is For Ali</em>
(Photo by: David Allen)
Naomi (Atosa Babaoff) and Waleed (Mohamed Chakmakchi) view an ultrasound video of their baby in A is For Ali

Perhaps the most troubling piece on the program is written by Melis Aker and directed by Erin Gilley with the help of dramaturg Anna Woodruff. In Manar, A distraught American mother (Jessica Lea Risco) in a failing marriage is convinced that she recognizes her missing son (Stephen Kanaski) in an ISIS video. Her panic is not helped by the fact that, unbeknownst to her, her husband (Lawrence Radecker) has been secretly meeting with her son's high school classmate and close friend, Najla (Naseem Etemad).

Manar's tensions erupt against a background in which Najla expresses fear that her friend might be dealing drugs, the boy's mother is terrified that her depressed and noticeably noncommunicative son may have been recruited over the Internet by a terrorist organization, and her abusive husband bends her over the kitchen table and rapes her after bringing home some groceries. Later, when Najla visits the mother of her missing (and presumed dead) friend, both women have difficult questions to ask (for which there are no easy answers).

Jessica Lea Risco and Lawrence Radecker are an unhappy couple whose son has gone missing in <em><strong>Manar</strong></em>
(Photo by: David Allen)
Jessica Lea Risco and Lawrence Radecker are an unhappy couple whose son has gone missing in Manar

One of the more poignant pieces on the program was written by Betty Shamieh and directed by Susannah Martin with dramaturgy by Nakissa Etemad. Make No Mistake shows the compromises made by conflicted women who get involved with powerful political figures. What sets Shamieh's play in a zone of its own is that the two woman portrayed are Amal (Atosa Babaoff), a fictional wife of Osama bin Laden, and Amy (Jessica Lea Risco), a fictional mistress of President George W. Bush.

Although the play begins with Amal and Amy fully dressed in black, as they slowly disrobe and discuss their lives, they begin to spill their secret longings and reveal the social compromises they have been forced to make. Because she must remain in hiding, Amal is often forced to move on a moment's notice and cannot make any friends. Because she has heard so much about the President's family, Amy desperately wishes she could meet his daughters in order to satisfy her feelings of being a significant (if distant) part of the extended Bush clan.

Amal (Atosa Babaoff) and Amy (Jessica Risco) discuss their difficult relationships in <em><strong>Make No Mistake</strong></e
(Photo by: David Allen)
Amal (Atosa Babaoff) and Amy (Jessica Risco) discuss their difficult relationships in Make No Mistake

In Hannah Khalil's political farce entitled The Rehearsal, three actors must try to figure out what their director (Stephen Kanaski) is trying to coax from them without doing anything that could potentially offend government censors.

The stage director keeps frustrating the actors by causing the first woman (Bella Warda) to keep repeating her entrance which, in turn, causes the man (Lawrence Radecker) and another woman (Naseem Etemad) to flub their timing as they lie underneath a sheet, waiting to be revealed in a compromising position. Under the direction of Evren Odcikin, The Rehearsal quickly demonstrates that practice does notmake perfect when actors get so rattled that they can no longer be sure of their timing.

Bella Warda, Naseem Etemad, and Lawrence Radecker appear in <strong><em>The Rehearsal</em></strong>
(Photo by: David Allen)
Bella Warda, Naseem Etemad, and Lawrence Radecker appear in The Rehearsal

The final piece on the program was Torange Yeghiazarian's carefully layered Thanksgiving at Khodabakhshian's. Directed by Susannah Martin (with dramaturgy by Nakissa Etemad), the setup is simple. Peter (Lawrence Radecker) and Bridget (Jessica Lea Risco) have only recently arrived in town. One of Peter 's co-workers, Dina (Bella Warda), has invited her new boss and his wife to join her Iranian-American family for Thanksgiving. What could possibly go wrong? For one thing, Bridget is a Trump supporter who does not take well to being criticized. She also has an uncanny talent for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time and not knowing when to back off or keep her mouth shut. Dina's daughter, Fay (Atosa Babaoff), is a leftist with strong political views who, like Bridget, can't always keep quiet. Not only has Fay's boyfriend left Dina's house because he felt insulted by the presence of their guests, when Bridget keeps asking why Fay's father can't join them for Thanksgiving, Fay blurts out that he was executed. Caught in the crossfire are Peter (who seems tired and would prefer to avoid sparking any kind of confrontation with his host) and Dina (who has more life experience than her passionately political daughter, is acutely aware of the need to remain on good terms with her new boss, and is willing to put her Iranian past behind her as part of building a new life in America). Just when tempers flare and the holiday dinner seems like it will be a complete failure, the question of what to do with the leftovers helps to restore peace.

Lawrence Radecker, Jessica Risco, Bella Warda, and Atosa Babaoff in <strong><em>Thanksgiving at Khodabakhshian’s</em></strong
(Photo by: David Allen)
Lawrence Radecker, Jessica Risco, Bella Warda, and Atosa Babaoff in Thanksgiving at Khodabakhshian’s
“It is commonly claimed that Arab-American theatre was born on September 11, 2001. But if one looks carefully enough, there is a history of Arab-American theatre that predates 9/11. One notable frontrunner is Golden Thread Productions, a theatre in San Francisco which has been focusing on Middle Eastern theatre from its inception in 1996 and running an annual festival called ReOrient since 1999. Dalia Basiouny (a theatre scholar working on Arab-American female playwrights) rightly finds that ‘one of the interesting features of the current flowering of Arab-American theatre and performance is that a great majority of the participating artists are women.’”

The compelling program of short plays presented during ReOrient 2017 bears witness to the impressive talent of emerging Arab-American playwrights and the powerful dramatic truths (especially as seen through women's eyes) that they bring to the stage. Performances of ReOrient 2017 continue through December 10 at the Potrero Stage (click here for tickets).

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