Monday, September 13, 2004

Flexing the Culture Muscle

This weekend has been filled (well, by MY normally inactive standards) with cultural events, courtesy a small but very active theatre group called SALAAM. The name stands for South Asian League of Artists in AMerica, begun by a warm, high-energy NYC resident called Geeta Citygirl three years ago. She wears a painted heart on her left cheek and she greets callers to her phone's answering service with 'Peace ...' but she's one of life's givers -- from what I've seen of her, she's in perpetual motion and its all directed towards her theatre activities and friends.

On Friday night I attended a reading of '9/10' by Richard Willett. It takes a moment for the penny to drop -- it's about the day BEFORE 9/11 -- and as it happened, the reading occurred on the tenth of September. It took the form of four dialogues between four pairs of people, on the eve of the event that would alter their lives irrevocably. There is nothing to connect the four narratives except of course the fact that they're in a building that will be, just one day later, rendered down to a smoking ruin.

It was clever, thought-provoking and well presented. I was particularly struck by the young couple Colin and Allison, a firefighter and his girlfriend who happens to be the daughter of a fire-fighter who died in a fire -- the play has the effect of snapping a lightbulb on over certain realities -- the fact that there was a time when fire-fighters were not accorded the status of high-visibility heroes they've had since post-9/11. Allison, it turns out, has a particular fixation with the sinking of the Titanic. She has been spending time over at the New York Public Library, looking at micro-film records of news reports. The day of the tragedy, the film is worn thin with having been used so often -- but what she has looked at just that afternoon, is the film of the day BEFORE the Titanic sank ...

In an oblique but highly effective way, she makes us stop and consider the absolutism of world events -- the way that a major news story ruthlessly wipes out all the stories that went before it, however urgent, poignant or impressive, in the tidal wave of news about the current catastrophe. Using the Titanic as the flashpoint, the playwright causes the audience to listen to these four conversations with a keen sense of premonition -- like ghosts of the future -- to what life was like in that 'innocent' time that is now lost forever, before the Towers fell.

Of course, too, as a non-American, I heard the play with a mental ear cocked towards all the stories that stream out of other lands and other histories, which should but don't have the same effect as a Titanic or a 9/11. Does it mean that they're really of less consequence -- are a million Rwandans of less consequence than 3000 New Yorkers? Or do we as readers of the media need to tune our own sensibilities more sharply so that we and not the news media can create the sense of consequence for ourselves?

So, like I said, it was a rewarding and eye-opening performance. About the playwright (from the flyer): his plays "... have been presented off-Broadway and at theatres across the country. Honours include an Edward F. Albee Foundation Fellowship, a Tennessee Williams Scholaship, an OOBR Award and grants from the Arch and Bruce Brown Foundation and the New York State Council of the Arts ... he is the co-artistic director of the New Directions Theatre (www.newdirectionstheater.org -- ha! I'm forced to use American spellings in a web-address!), where his play THE FLID SHOW will re-open in January 2005, and is also the author ten published short stories."

Then on Sunday I went to a performance of "FATWA" by a young Indian playwright, Anuvab Pal. Also thought-provoking and well presented, the play concerns two elderly men, Michael Jordan (Joe Jamrog) and Mohammed Ali (Jerry Matz) -- both obscure, wannabe-writers, unrelated to their famous namesakes. At the opening of the play, Michael Jordan has just been told that his novel AFSHANA is to be published while Mohammed Ali has failed yet again to get HIS long prose-poem published despite forty years of trying. It turns out that 'Afshana' is the name of Mohammed Ali's dead wife, killed on the eve of their honeymoon, by Jordan's rash driving. The two men have maintained an uneasy, quarrelsome friendship through the years -- based in equal parts on Bangladeshi kababs and an interest in literature! -- and in the course of the play, Jordan attempts a reparation of sorts, through a fatwa-inspired plan to earn some money for Ali.

The dialogue was for the most part engaging and crisp and the two principles held their own well -- two old men don't normally make for the most thrilling main characters, but this couple held our interest with their bad-tempered wrangling, as they struggle to squeeze what advantage they can out of the bare resources at their command -- Jordan's underwhelming success as an author and Ali's guttering life-force (he has terminal cancer). It was commendable, I thought, that the playwright chose to focus away from typical South Asian preoccupations to look at issues and characters outside the fold. In particular, I thought Matz as Ali provided a nicely rendered portrait of a man in the irascible twilight of existence -- when you can do what you like because you know there's not enough time left for the consequences to be worth fretting over.

The play was staged by AlterEgo described as "a team of professionals from various disciplines. ... collaborat(ing) with the New York theatre communicty to showcase innovative Theatre. What makes us unique is our ability to use AlterEgo as a platform to express our artistic vision while drawing from our diverse professional experiences to run a not-for profit theatre company." Anuvab Pal's plays include Chaos Theory, Out of Fashion and Life, Love and EBITDA. He is a member of the Dramatists Guild of America, a member playwright of Pulse Ensemble Theatre, Harbor Theatre, a teaching associate with Epic Theatre and Literary Manager of SALAAM Theatre. The director, Michael Barakiva was educated at the Juillard School, Vassar College.

Their ages are not mentioned in the brochure but they both appeared to be in their early twenties -- YOUNG! And talented. A good combination ...

Meanwhile, next Monday, SALAAM Theatre will host a reading of my play The Mating Game Show. Stay tuned for updates ...

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Ain' it news/an event that's dramatic, sensational, visceral that stirs us rather than the 'humdrum'? 9/11 vs (as u say) Rwanda, Godhra vs the thousands that die daily due lack of proper food/medicine etc., a major economic recession/disaster rather than the fact that thru the ages a majority of the people remain deprived and exploited regardless of how an economy is doing?

Amrobilia said...

Good luck for the reading of TMGS!

Just as I was getting everything ready for some house guests, one molar in me mouth decided it was in need of root canal therapy, my bedside lamp decided to conk off, my computer n washing machine collapsed and my car demanded hospitalisation. To add to all this, it suddenly dawned on the people running a particular soap on TV that my character had been out of it for too long and needed to be aired with a vengeance. SO - I've been neglecting your blog, is what I'm trying to get across to you in my inimitable way.

Books, books, books, yes, books, books, books! I'll try catch the ones you've mentioned (I did 'Genome' about a year back) but DO try Bill Bryson's 'History'...did you know that if all the strands of DNA in you were joined end-to-end, the resulting maha-strand would stretch from earth to the moon n back several times?

Marginalien said...

I've tried reading Bryson on and off and though I think he's funny I can't manage to read more than a little bit at a time. Haven't tried hard enough mebbe ...

Tnx for the good wishes re MGS -- do you recall we did a reading of one of the innumerable versions in your Nizamuddin home? With Divya Seth et al. And you reading Zed!! I remember you were quite hoarse by the end of it. This version is greatly reduced -- a mere 90-min skit compared to that 4-hour monster. Different ending too.

How iz the molar?? And the car? But it sounds like you're working strenuously. Too bad you're not here! From a stray comment made while the SALAAM team were discussing casting, it seems that there's a demand for South Asian actors of the 'mature' persuasion ...

Amrobilia said...

Ah, Yes! Had forgotten about the reading at Niz...what a gas! I remember the one at St. Andrews, though, with Barry. Did you ever figure why he 'dropped' it? As to actors of a 'mature' persuasion, well, there's nothing for us here, really. For me it's just "Good, Rich, Westernised-father" roles. Soap after soap after soap. It's so frustrating to be surrounded by, to be drowning in, this ocean of 'creativity' (Bollywood) where everybody whose job it is to work out scenarios is incapable of thinking beyond age 25 for the protagonist/s...with the royal exception of the BIG B!!! But, of course, I cannot dream of leaving India for more than about a month!!!

Molar better, car better, wash machine fixed, computer fine, readlight should be done by tomorrow and I'm done with shooting for at least the next few days. Happiness!

Marginalien said...

Ha. Not only have I never forgotten the reading at St Andrews but I think of it as one of the turning points in my career as a writer -- when I realized that people like Barry could behave in that apallingly graceless manner -- I felt as if I'd been picked up by the scruff of my neck and then dropped SPLAT! on the concrete floor for no reason other than that I had trusted my play in the hands of an unworthy director -- that I was in the wrong place in the wrong time for being what I am. It didn't mean that I stopped writing -- just that I stopped caring what people thought of me or my work.

Amrobilia said...

Wisdom really oozeth now!