Searching For Inner Peace

11/01/2017 03:06 am ET

Some people don't have much interest in introspection. A malignant narcissist and raging extrovert like Donald Trump will instinctively find ways to deflect criticism of his weaknesses and shift the blame for his misdeeds to others. Conversely, an introvert -- or someone with low self-esteem -- will avoid being the center of attention and work on analyzing (or overanalyzing) the situation. In her recent article entitled 12 Things Introverts Absolutely Need To Be Happy, Jenn Granneman explains that:

“Introverts don’t chase the same things as extroverts. They’re not always on the lookout for the next party. Nor do they constantly need other people to entertain them. Many nights, they’re content to hang out at home, reading a book, watching a movie, or just puttering around on their own terms. Loud bars, crowded parties, and busy schedules quickly wear them out. Sadly, introverts may feel like they can’t say what they need. Sometimes they just don’t have the words; the thoughts tumble around in their heads but don’t come out the way they intended. Or, they may feel like they have to hide their needs from others.”

One might have to squint to see the internal struggles captured in two dramas that, to the normal eye, would seem to be worlds apart from each other. Both focus on people who are trying to decipher the mysteries of their lives by looking within for answers. The filmmaker of one has a well-documented video library at his disposal that can be used as a reference tool. The characters created by a playwright must let go of the emotional baggage they've been carrying around to protect their feelings before they can search for greater understanding.

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One of the documentaries being screened at San Francisco's 2017 3rd i International South Asian Film Festival is Abu, a film by Arshad Khan which, thanks to his family's long-term fascination with home movies, has preserved many moments of innocence as well as family tension on video. Combined with several key animation sequences, Abu (which means "father" in Arabic) depicts the Khan family's history from happier times to the present. Although the film's timeline might seem normal, on closer examination, one can see the fracture lines slowly starting to deepen.

  • Khan's father began life as an orphan living in pre-partition India before being forced to leave in 1947 and start his life anew in Pakistan.
  • As a college student obsessed with movies and movie-making, Abu was very interested in the arts. Not only was the Khan family one of the first families in Islamabad to own a handheld VHS recorder, young Arshad quickly took to directing home movies in his childhood.
  • After retiring from Pakistan's military, Abu built a highly successful business distributing bottled water.
  • Close to his older sister (who he describes as "an unapologetic artist"), Arshad was disappointed when she got married and left the Khan family's home.
  • After Abu's water distribution business succumbed to competition in the early 1990s, the family decided to move to Canada, forcing the 15-year-old Arshad to leave behind all of his childhood friends and build a new life in Missassaugua (a suburb of Toronto).
  • Arshad is convinced that the effects of migration, assimilation (an older brother married a white Canadian), and separation (Arshad spending time away from his family and making friends with more and more LGBT people) are what triggered his parents’ shift to becoming conservative Muslims. The events of 9/11 opened Arshad’s eyes politically, making him feel as if there was "a war on brown bodies." Although previously apolitical, he found it unacceptable to have the word “terrorist” attributed to his people. After dropping out of his final year at architecture school, he purchased the cheapest mini-DVD camera he could buy and began to document more of his life.
 Poster art for <strong><em>Abu</em></strong>
Poster art for Abu

In contrast to his parents' deeper involvement with a fundamentalist form of Islam, Arshad's story follows a path of self-discovery that leads to his coming out as a gay man and activist as well as his involvement in a long-term relationship with another man and his work as a flight attendant for Air Canada (which affords his family great travel benefits).

The filmmaker's life takes a dramatic turn one night when Arshad has an oddly prophetic dream in which, like Ebeneezer Scrooge, he is presented with three visions. One seems to indicate that he will meet some kind of monster dressed in a button-down pale blue shirt; another predicts that he will return to Pakistan to visit his childhood home in Islamabad. The third predicts that his father will die at 3:00 a.m.

 Three prophets visit Arshad in a dream
Three prophets visit Arshad in a dream

Late in Abu's life, Arshad and his father manage to heal any rifts caused by the cultural differences in his living an openly gay lifestyle and his father's religious conservatism. While visiting Islamabad, an older and wiser Arshad recalls some childhood events that, as an adult gay man, he realizes involve his being raped by a male cousin.

As documentaries go, Abu delivers a surprisingly intimate view of a family defined by migration, by progress, and by suddenly being seen as "the other." Despite the fact that a wealth of his father’s photographs and letters were lost in a flood during the 1960s, many home movies were still available for Arshad to use in his first feature film. As he explains:

“I’m using my family’s archives, so it’s very personal; it’s the shared history of our family. I had to do it justice but, at the same time, I had to make a sincere film. Because I’m dealing with some very serious subject matter when it comes to shame, secrets, and lies, I wanted to make a film that generations of my family will watch and be proud of rather than ashamed of -- a film that is sincere and honest and really brutal, but which also does justice to my father’s legacy and my family’s legacy."

* * * * * * * * *

How easily can extroverts resist the temptation to hog the spotlight? Cynics and comedians are quick to mock meditation and, without doubt, it's easy for them to find a receptive audience.

Introverts, however, often seek out situations where they can embrace silence and solitude. While some people would be surprised to learn that meditation is a valuable tool for anger management and impulse control, one need only look at the changes seen in students at San Francisco's Visitacion Valley Middle School since a meditation program named Quiet Time was instituted 10 years ago.

Six characters in search of inner peace arrive at a silent retreat in a scene from <strong><em>Small Mouth Sounds</em></stron
(Photo by: T. Charles Erickson)
Six characters in search of inner peace arrive at a silent retreat in a scene from Small Mouth Sounds

The American Conservatory Theater is currently hosting the national tour of Small Mouth Sounds at the Strand Theater. Bess Wohl's poignant comedy examines what happens when six city dwellers gather for a silent weekend retreat in the woods. As the playwright notes, "Most people who come to a retreat have a very strong need connected with wanting a reprieve from the most painful aspects of being alive. Part of my interest in working with silence was to see how audiences fill in the gaps with their own ideas and assumptions."

Cherene Snow appears as Judy in <strong><em>Small Mouth Sounds</em></strong>
(Photo by: T. Charles Erickson)
Cherene Snow appears as Judy in Small Mouth Sounds

Working on a handsome unit set designed by Laura Jellinek (with costumes by Tilly Grimes, lighting by Mike Inwood, and projections by Andrew Schneider), Ars Nova's production begins with sound designer Stowe Nelson's increasingly loud, almost symphonic, sounds of a forest downpour. “I’m drawn to anything that asks me to make something that I’ve never lived in before, that requires me to learn how to do something, or create a different culture," states director Rachel Chavkin. "That’s not only how I think about design, but also how I think about performance style, the world of the play, or the culture that I’m forging onstage. With a new play, my specific responsibility as a director is to honor the playwright’s intention. When there’s no dialogue, that’s very hard to do because the staging becomes the intention.”

Ned (Ben Beckley) and Rodney (Edward Chin-Lyn) get acquainted in a scene from <strong><em>Small Mouth Sounds</em></strong>
(Photo by: T. Charles Erickson)
Ned (Ben Beckley) and Rodney (Edward Chin-Lyn) get acquainted in a scene from Small Mouth Sounds

With Orville Mendoza's offstage voice guiding the program as the retreat's leader, the paying participants include Judy (Cherene Snow), a middle-aged African American woman who frequently suffers from acute spasms of pain and whose cynical nature is evidenced by silent, fierce, eye rolls. Judy is accompanied by her companion, Joan (Socorro Santiago), a woman with worry written all over her face who perks up at the sight of a man she recognizes from his yoga videos. Although their body language evidences a close and loving relationship, it soon becomes obvious that the responsibilities of caring for Judy have been wearing Joan down spiritually while limiting her opportunities to socialize with others.

Socorro Santiago appears as Joan in <strong><em>Small Mouth Sounds</em></strong>
(Photo by: T. Charles Erickson)
Socorro Santiago appears as Joan in Small Mouth Sounds

Two of the men attending the retreat have arrived bearing much more emotional than physical baggage. Jan (Connor Barrett) doesn't speak English and, whenever outside, is constantly swatting at mosquitoes. He carries a framed picture of a young child with him wherever he goes. Ned (Ben Beckley), is the kind of nervous man who, when asked for a one-word answer, can't stop talking. In recent years, he has suffered one personal disaster after another and wears a skull cap to cover his scalp wounds from multiple brain surgeries. Nerdy, awkward, and drowning in self doubt, Ned tries to follow the leader's rules for the duration of the retreat but constantly ends up making a fool of himself.

Ben Beckley appears as Ned in <strong><em>Small Mouth Sounds</em></strong>
(Photo by: T. Charles Erickson)
Ben Beckley appears as Ned in Small Mouth Sounds

No one in the audience should be surprised that opposites attract. The participant who is most comfortable in his own skin is obviously Rodney (Edward Chin-Lyn), a tall handsome Asian who practices yoga and includes meditation as an integral part of his daily routine. An early arrival who is quick to doff his clothes and go for a naked swim, Rodney isn't the least bit self-conscious about bending over to pick up a towel while exposing his ass crack to the audience. By contrast, Alicia (Brenna Palughi) arrives late, frazzled, and has difficulty letting go of her junk food and smartphone. Emotionally distraught over a recent breakup, she spends the first few days furiously taking notes of everything the leader says, and frequently breaks down in tears. Her tense affect offers a marked contrast to Rodney's practiced serenity.

Alicia (Brenna Palughi) has trouble disconnecting from her smartphone in <strong><em>Small Mouth Sounds</em></strong>
(Photo by: T. Charles Erickson)
Alicia (Brenna Palughi) has trouble disconnecting from her smartphone in Small Mouth Sounds

There are some people who might be wary about attending a show that revolves around silence, but Chavkin has no doubts about the appeal of Small Mouth Sounds. As she explains:

“The reason I love the play, the fundamental reason I signed on for it, is because it raises a deep question about the pursuit of happiness and whether we should be happy. Is it possible for us to be mindful and happy in a world with so much suffering? Those questions are really at the heart of California, which is such a pioneer in not only mindfulness, but also libertarianism.”
Judy (Cherene Snow) and Jan (Connor Barrett) get stoned in a scene from <strong><em>Small Mouth Sounds</em></strong>
(Photo by: T. Charles Erickson)
Judy (Cherene Snow) and Jan (Connor Barrett) get stoned in a scene from Small Mouth Sounds

“Happily, hopefully, in California we won’t have to work quite as hard to make people understand why you should do a silent retreat in the first place. I’m truly aware that San Francisco is a place where silent retreats are alive and well and unquestioned. It’s very important for the functioning of the play that you believe that the Teacher is valuable. Depending on how cynical the audience is (or how laughable an audience might find that New Age ideology) we could have an uphill battle landing this story of why these six souls are at this retreat.”

Small Mouth Sounds arrives in San Francisco just in time for the holiday season, when family reunions, relationship stress, and the pressure to enjoy Thanksgiving or Christmas can work a person's nerves raw. Thanks to the fine work of Chavkin's gifted ensemble, this Ars Nova production allows audiences to laugh freely as they recognize the way some people's repressed emotions can be subtly triggered and rise to the surface with a most poignant honesty. The characters Wohl has created are easily recognizable humans whose true beauty lies in their imperfections (if and when they can see it).

Performances of Small Mouth Sounds continue through December 10 at the Strand Theatre (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

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