Kol Nidrei

theamom

To Thea

I feel you in the music of the clouds

When the rain keeps rhythm in my heart,

Or when my soul can’t breathe. You left me, sister,

Here under mother’s rueful gaze, her pain

A poison I no longer fear, now loathe.

Remember? You mocked me when I called you

Foe, your frailty my rival. I prayed

For illness, sought to suffer like you did

Knowing mother loved your infirmity

Resented my health, my robust, boy-like

Strength. I wanted all you had and were.

While mother wanted nothing more than you

And a son, the treasured son I cannot be.

You alone said, “Nonsense. You’ll be brilliant.

Just find a concerto of your own.”

Now you’re gone, and who will help me string my

Bow? Who will turn my pages, make me smile

Through Dvorak, Schumann, and the rest? No one.

My cello is buried here. My music was you.

charlottecello

Charlotte With Cello, by Borislav Bogdanovich (http://www.bogdanovichcollection.com/biography/)

The Golden Playwright – a conversation with David Henry Hwang

Reprinted from The Columbia Journal online.

 

 

dhw1David Henry Hwang (Columbia Univerity School of the Arts Website)

I am on the phone with David Henry Hwang, the Concentration Head of the Playwriting program in the Drama Division of Columbia University’s School of the Arts, and I’ll admit it:  I’m a nervous wreck.  David’s affable manner, his warmth, his easy conversational tone should put me at ease, but omigod I’m talking to David Henry Hwang, the author of more great plays than most of us will see in a lifetime as well as screenplays, opera and musical theater libretti . . . he has even scripted Disney cartoon features and supervised the transition to a web mini-series of his play Yellowface. Nominated for three Tonys, he has won one, and he has  twice been a finalist for a Pulitzer in drama and is the recipient of three OBIEs.

Awe has struck me.

There is a history here. Back in 2001, as I searched for the perfect musical for the spring production I had been hired to direct in a suburban Connecticut school, I read in Variety that Hwang had rehabilitated the book of Rogers and Hammerstein’s The Flower Drum Song.  The article, by Steven Oxman, explained that Hwang had transformed the embarrassingly stereotyped Asian-Americans depicted in the book Hammerstein wrote with Joseph Fields and had reimagined and adapted the story. Hwang re-set the play in both China and San Francisco, gave it a political context, and eliminated the arranged marriage on which the premise of the original script depended.  “Hwang manages to have it both ways,” Oxman wrote, “commenting on the entertainment while still delivering it.”  I found myself nodding.

What made me love M Butterfly and F.O.B. (it stands for Fresh Off boat) andThe Golden Child were David Henry Hwang’s astute commentary on and delivery of the entertainment  along with his sharply honed satirical observations. This Flower Drum Song had to be good, a great learning experience for the students in the production I was to direct.

Besides, my kids would be just as impressed as I was. Hwang is no mere playwright.  He is the idol of rock stars.  No kidding.  PRINCE was a fan. Interviewed by Broadway World Magazine in 2016, Hwang effused, “So imagine my groupie heart in 1989, when I opened PEOPLE Magazine to find a picture of Prince, coming out of M. BUTTERFLY, my Broadway show! Prince goes to Broadway? Who knew? He saw my play!”

Apparently, Prince was considering adding a Broadway musical to his credits, and he summoned the playwright to his hotel suite to confer on the prospect of collaboration.  That project never materialized, but Hwang did pen the lyics to Solo, which appears on the album Come and is the B side of the single Let it Go.

No question about it.  The kids would beg me to find a way to get David Henry Hwang to come to Connecticut to see the definitive youth production of his version of The Flower Drum Song.

It wasn’t until after I’d read the perusal (from the R & H Library, which handles permissions for the entire canon) that reality hit me.

It was 2002.  Suburban Connecticut.  There were not nearly enough Asians in the school to cast eight Asian leads and a full chorus of singing/dancing Asian kids. And there was no way I would cast the play with white kids.  I had seen enough interviews, read enough of Hwang’s essays to know that yellow facing – a practice that casts non-Asians in Asian roles –  is one of his most fervent oppositions.  It’s even the subject of one my favorite Hwang plays calledYellowface, which was adapted for the  YOMYOMF network in two parts.

Mounting such a production would offend my sensibilities as much as doingCarousel, which features a woman singing “He’s yer feller and you love him, that’s all there is to that” about a man who has just assaulted her.  No way.

Full disclosure here –Paul Muni, the Polish Jewish actor who played Wang, the farmer, in The Good Earth, was my grandfather’s first cousin.

 

dhw2The Good Earth – MGM Trailer Still

This is a fact that makes me squirm, especially because, like Hwang, I am the of the first generation of children born in America, and I was always troubled by Hollywood’s habitual casting of actors such as Sal Mineo or Robert DeNiro or Charlton Heston to play Jewish characters.  Those were roles that should have gone to any of the myriad Jewish actors in Hollywood and New York, who instead changed their names and lightened their hair and skin so they could play WASPS . . . or who altered their appearances to play the less desirable ethnic roles.  Most offensive to me was the practice, illustrated by Muni’s Wang, of painting eye slants and yellow skin tones, hence the term yellow facing .

On the phone with David Henry Hwang, there’s a bit of a silence between us for a moment, but I swear I can hear his eyes crinkle into a smile as I describe my relationship to Muni. It was a good place to start.  I was trying to get my breath back, to relax into this. I’ve interviewed people I admire before, but, again, this is David Henry Hwang!

It’s going to be okay.  This guy’s a mensch.  I had asked him earlier if he liked being at Columbia, and he said he loves being a professor and a mentor, guiding new talent.  It shows in his demeanor, the gentle encouragement that easily finds its way to my ear.

This is not actually the first time we’ve “talked.”  David Hwang and I have “met”a few times. . . on Twitter, of all places.  In October, after I attended a panel he was on called Convergence/Divergence, I tweeted: The gr8 David Henry Hwang says, ‘Hamilton the musical play of my generation.  Perhaps the musical of the millennium.”  And to my delighted surprise, he replied, “Anyone who can rhyme Rochambeau with ‘go man go’ is genius in my book.”

I was not surprised that what struck him most about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brilliant musical built around linguistic gymnastics was the language itself.  The things I always notice when I read Hwang’s work, echoed now in his voice, are his remarkable economy with language, reinforced by his genius for juxtaposition of sound and usage.  His voice is animated and engaged.  Language is an instrument he clearly loves to play.

I ask him to talk about translation.  One of Hwang’s more notable credits is an adaptation of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt though he doesn’t speak Norwegian.  This version updates and Anglifies the metaphors, relies heavily on contemporary American references to re-tell Ibsen’s version of the Norwegian Everyman. In literary translation, fluency in the original language is far less important than fluidity in the language of the translation.

He tells me that the actual translation, the literal transfer from Norwegian to English, was executed by Director Stephan Muller.

“What I did was craft the language.”  Here he stops to measure his words.  “The trickiest thing is understanding the role of idiom and cultural context.  What do the people do and say in the language or in the culture in which the play is written, and how is that translated into the language and the culture in which the play is being performed.  Then its about the economy of the performance language .  That’s the critical piece. “

“You see that exemplified in translations of musicals or opera.  When I’ve had musicals translated into languages, that’s been interesting, especially at Disney.  Disney was very controlling about the translation.  They had strict guidelines.  They’d contract a literary translation but at the same time hire someone to do a literal back translation, which, theoretically, should be more accurate and provide for authentication.  But it doesn’t come close.  Because in that case all the idioms go away.  Idioms are uninterpretable.”

Translators must consider how each language uses metaphors and idioms differently for even the most trivial of matters. It may make sense, for example, to the Chinese mind, to refer to undisturbed grass as “sleeping,” but the phrase won’t work in English.  By the same token, English phrases like nest egg and bad egg have no correlative in Chinese, and the literal translations can have ridiculous, humorous, even disastrous effect.

 

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Which is the central preoccupation of Hwang’s play Chinglish, which I saw at the Longacre Theatre in 2011.  Directed by Leigh Silverman, the slapstick linguistics dramatize the way people communicate and fail to communicate across cultural expanses, the way humans are desperate to be understood but fail to understand. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PpP2UIH8U1Y)

The play, delivered in both English and Mandarin, features super-titling that lets the audience in on the super-joke: every time a statement emerges, it is intercepted by a mutilating misinterpretation.  It’s the manifestation of the experience of knowing the language of a foreign film or an opera and reading the subtitles only to find that the audience is being thoroughly misled.  Classic David Henry Hwang virtuosity. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LEaLxLdVhv4)

It strikes me as we are talking that several of Hwang’s plays, including Golden Child, Kung Fu (an homage to Bruce Lee), Yellow Face and Chinglish, have been directed by Leigh Silverman, one of the too few women breaking through the glass ceiling in New York theater (Silverman and Hwang).

“Your women,” I venture, “are so well developed, so fully realized.  They’re witty, clever, creative, real.  And you often work with female directors, producers.  Clearly, your collaborations have been successful.  So to what do you attribute the underrepresentation of women in theater and film?”

He takes his time answering.  “You know, it’s part of that other conversation, the bigger discussion about the underrepresentation of ethnicities, the way yellow facing was a way of keeping theater white. We need to make a theater that looks more like America, one that is more about inclusion, which is just as much about gender as it is about race. In the same way that we need more racially true characters and creators, we need more and better women characters, women creators.

“Here’s the problem, and it comes down to money.  Perhaps the greatest impediment to diversity – and this is true in ANY industry – is that bosses and administrators, the people in charge, tend to hire people who look like them.  In theater, they haven’t begun to hire people who look like the audience. The audience has not demanded it yet.  People continue to buy tickets even though they are not seeing themselves represented onstage or in the credits.

“I appreciate that you like my female characters, but I don’t really help things.  My creating good female characters is not the same as having more female writers doing that.  What sets women apart from other minorities is that women are already the majority of theater audiences.  They need to stop buying tickets until they see better female representation.  There is no shortage of talent among the women out there.  Women need to demand to see more of them.  That’s how they affect the change.  It’s up to them.”

We agree that television is leading the charge in this area, and that reminds me that Hwang has recently become involved in writing for television, a medium serious writers used to shy away from.  I wonder what kind of writing he prefers.

So  I ask, “ Which medium do you prefer to work in?”

This time, he doesn’t even take a breath before answering.

“All mediums are divergent and each has advantages and disadvantages, but

theater is my favorite form.  It’s the most personal, has the fewest restrictions to self-expression, and I have the most control or at least the most sense of control as the primary artist, the primary vision, the primary source of the product.

“Then again, I have found that I can take joy in someone else’s project, and I can be very comfortable in collaboration, and this is true for everything from Glass operas to Disney films to The Affair.”

I keep to myself that I blame the presence of his name on The Affair credits for my having discovered it, which has led me into an addiction that has left me hungry for Season 3.

“ I had never worked on a TV show before,” he goes on.  “ I find that I am loving being in the writers’ room at The Affair. . . . I came into it because I was trying to create my own show, and Sarah Treem was a former mentee who had become a dear friend, and she suggested I come work for her and learn fromThe Affair what makes a television show.  So my mentee became my boss, and I am glad to say I am back on for Season 3.”

Be still my heart.

Technically, I have run out of time now, but my generous subject says we have time for a few more questions.

“Back in October, at the Convergence/Divergence Panel, someone asked if the theater is dead, and after a complicated but very wise reply, you said that the infusion of electronic media would breathe new life into the theater, that that is where the future of theater is.  Can you explain what you meant?”

“You know . . . I’m not exactly sure what I meant then.  I do know that theater has greatly benefitted from the digital age whereas some electronic modes, like music, have suffered from it.  Live entertainment flourishes because digital performances are easily pirated while live performance  is unreproduceable.  That makes live shows more valuable than ever. You can’t experience being at a rock concert without being there, and you can’t experience being at a live play without being there.  That increases the value.  Prince figured that out years ago when he gave away CDs at his concerts.  He knew that the CDs would be the best enticement to bring people into the venues for his concerts.

“Also, the presence of the electronic media heightens reality, makes what is live more alive.  We need to find ways to make the live experience more interactive, and electronic media enables that.

“Sports events are finding the same thing.  There is no more need to black out events the way they used to.  The televised version enhances live sales and vice versa. They help each other.”

He stops and breathes.  “Go ahead,” he encourages.  “Ask me more.  This is fun.”

“I do have two more questions if you don’t mind.”

“Shoot.”

“If you could change one thing about the theater – “

“Nope.  I can’t choose one thing.  I’d have to have two at minimum.”

“Okay.  Two then.  What are they?”

“Okay. First –  Ticket prices – How can we make theater accessible to a larger number of people if we allow the ticket prices to be so high?  The business model is the problem.  That needs to change.

“ And also the inclusion thing. We must create an American theater that looks more like America.  Like I said it’s not an issue that’s specific to theater.  By 2040, minorities – particularly Asian – will be the plurality, no longer a minority.  This also speaks to accessibility, don’t you think? Theater is less accessible to those who are excluded.  What’s the other one?”

“Do you have a favorite work?”

He laughs again.  “Look. I’m a father.  I’ll use the kids analogy.  I have three kids, and I love them all equally.  With each, however, I have a particular relationship, just like I do with everything I write. F.O.B. was my first play, before I even knew how to read plays or write them.  It will always be my first.  Some of my plays are overachievers, others are misunderstood.  I love them all. “

After I hang up, I imagine shaking his hand and thinking, “I’ll never wash that hand again.”

 

 

A Little Bit of Sycophancy

Before you read my review of All the Ways to Say I Love You, I would like to say a word about Judith Light.

When I was about to meet the actress in 2003, the prospect did not thrill me at all.

My writing and producing partner Daniel Fine had been invited by the Directors View Film Festival’s Executive Director Robert Kesten to create a tribute event for Arthur Penn, who was that year’s winner of the festival’s Joseph L. Mankiewicz Excellence in Filmmaking Award.imgres-2

Dan and I read and watched Arthur’s vast body of films and fashioned a script from scenes we’d cobbled together for Daniel to direct as a tribute reading. We then invited actors, who had worked with the director onstage as well as in his films, to participate, and though we had no budget to pay the actors or to transport them from any further than New York City, we were able to come up with a formidable company of very talented, willing professionals. When I sent the list to Mr. Penn, he shot back that he was disappointed not to find Judith Light; we hadn’t called her because she was not named as anyone he had previously worked with. “She’s brilliant,” he said, “and I would love to see her. I know she’s back in NY. Why not get in touch? She should read the Gibson stuff,” he said, referring to the pieces from the plays he’d directed by William Gibson. “It’s all written for a tough, smart woman. That’s Judith Light.”

I was skeptical. I mean, all I knew of her was an electronic face I had seen at intervals when passing through the family room, attempting to get my children to turn off that ‘80s television sitcom, predominated by what seemed to me an automaton blonde. But Arthur Penn wanted her in, and who was I to doubt Arthur Penn?whos-boss

Well, Judith Light showed me how wrong I was about her.

She got the script a few hours before the reading, and we had one rehearsal.  But by the time the introductions were made, and the reading began, she had somehow managed to learn several lengthy monologues from the dense Gibson material she was assigned, and she easily swung from making Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller’s mother (The Miracle Worker and Monday After the Miracle) and Golda Meir (Golda), come alive. They were flawlessly believable. She disappeared first into the subtly Irish Sullivan, then into the patrician Southern gentlewoman and the Russian immigrant American Israeli Prime Minister with polished ease, as though she had been studying the roles her whole life, as though she had rehearsed them forever. imgres-1imgres

I became a fan and have since seen almost everything she has done on stage(she’s since won two Tonys and a host of other accolades) and on streaming video (Amazon’s Transparent, for which she won an Emmy); I am a grateful admirer of the nuanced older women she animates.light-in-transparent

Her Shel Pfefferman has taken her place alongside Grace Hanson and Frankie Bergstein (Grace and Frankie), my much-revered imaginary alter egos.

Which is why I knew she’d be great in All the Ways to Say I Love You.  (My review follows.)

What She Did For Love

Theater Review: All the Ways to Say I Love You
written by Neil Labute, directed by Leigh Silverman, starring Judith Light

As the house fades to darkness in the Lucille Lortel Theatre, Judith Light seems to bring up the stage lights as she makes her entrance. She crosses down center and stands absolutely still for a moment. She is pensive, oblivious to the applause from the audience who, having not yet met the character, cheer for the star they recognize. She waits for a beat before she walks to Stage Left and slowly crosses back to Stage Right, each time stopping to scrutinize the first few rows of the audience, clearly looking for “someone” to talk to.  Judith Light disappears, and her character Mrs. Johnson launches  into the monolog that is All the Ways to Say I Love You.  The result is a 90-minute stream-of-consciousness outpouring, the unpacking of personal history and emotion by Mrs. Johnson, a woman who has lost herself in the jumbled morass of others’ expectations and her own passions.  

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Judith Light as Mrs. Johnson, in The MCC Theater Production of Neil LaBute’s All the Ways to Say I Love You, directed by Leigh Silverman, now playing at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 141 Christopher Street, NYC. (Photo by @JoanMarcus)

The experience of following the Mrs. Johnson’s narrative, deftly written by Neil LaBute,  is something like being on multiple amusements at a fun park, riding them in such quick succession that there is no way to regain composure.  Mrs. Johnson recounts her life, breathlessly purging herself in chilling, even sometimes disgustingly vivid detail, leaving the audience as winded as she is.  Even the silences, the long pregnant silences, don’t enable her to breathe.  She is thinking, feeling, processing, and the effort of it exhausts us as it seems to deplete her.  But then she rallies, and her energy seems boundless, as she drags us into yet another corner of Mrs. Johnson’s past.

Light’s commitment to her character is absolute, unflinching.  She introduces herself at the top of the play as a high school English and drama teacher doubling occasionally as a guidance counselor, who has perhaps given her life to her profession while withholding too much from her marriage.  Allowing herself some self-deprecation, she amuses herself with her witticisms, even as she reveals, in the first few moments, that this will be the story of her relationship to a whopper of a falsehood.

“What is the weight of a lie?” she says a student once asked her, and though she goes on to say that she was unable to answer the question then, there is no doubt that the play is about to provide one.  Over the next 90 minutes, in fact, she peels back the layers of linen that shroud her lie, laying all its harrowing consequences bare and judging herself guilty. She has sentenced herself to a life of misery.

LaBute’s writing draws the audience into the judgmentalism of the moment, so much so that they are left with a sense of a larger crime even than the one to which Mrs. Johnson admits.

“She’s a pedophile,” I heard a woman scoff as she jumped to her feet to join the standing ovation at play’s end.  “I don’t understand why I am so enthusiastic.  I’m applauding a blood-sucking pedophile.”

In truth, it’s a trap LaBute has set most effectively. From the start, Mrs. Johnson makes it clear that she has indeed broken the laws of all that is holy to any sentient being and has had a prolonged affair with a student, but she has repeatedly mitigated that pronouncement by emphasizing that she did so with “a second year senior,” meaning a 19- or 20-year-old, clearly someone past the age of consent.  There is no pedophilia.

“He’s a rapist,” says the woman’s companion.  “I should hate her.  Why don’t I?”  Perhaps, I think, because there is no rape.  Again, LaBute has muddied the waters with a shadow of doubt; Mrs. Johnson clearly states that it was the boy who made the first moves, that it was he who insinuated himself into her life before she chose to allow him access.  It’s a subtle nuance but critical to the character because her little loopholes are the devices that enable her to maintain a modicum of self-respect, and allow her to believe herself a good teacher, a wise counselor, a loving parent with less delusion.

I felt close to this character.  She has, like so many women in my generations, tried to shrink herself to fit the prefab molds she’s been required to fill.  She has sublimated herself to the work that now defines her, but she has received no rewards for her efforts.  And she has fallen into an abyss most sentient adults would have avoided at all cost, has lost herself to the delusion that, having given so much, she deserves to take something for herself.  It’s not entirely her fault, but we will blame her nonetheless. Her Fifteen years in the classroom, teaching English and directing the drama club like Mrs. Johnson, her story resonates in me.  I knew my share of bold boys, those who envisioned themselves men enough to seduce the teacher.  And I knew how tempting some of them could be.  Male entitlement has the potential to beguile and can be a powerful aphrodisiac.  Most of us realize that to give in is idiotic folly, and we never do, but for Mrs. Johnson, the stakes are complicated.

Her husband, a mixed race man, has suffered many hardships for standing out as different in their small town community.  Over and over, she tells us she loves him, she will do anything to save her marriage. He wants children. Desperately, she says.  But no matter how hard they try, they remain childless.  She wants him to excite her, and she longs for him to find her attractive; but as they try more arduously to make a baby, they lose interest in one another, all of which renders her as vulnerable as a woman can be.  That boy is insistent, and he has a hunger for her that is irresistible.

That hers is a terrible mistake, one predicated on a huge fabrication, is undeniable, and she will be punished. Endlessly.  Which, I suppose, is how the women were mollified and convinced not to lynch the actor at the end of the play.

Even as I found Mrs. Johnson a reliable narrator of her tale, I couldn’t help wondering how much of the story lives in the character’s head, how much is the dramatic story she fed herself during times when teaching was, as teaching can be, stultifying, when she felt her creativity drained, and all her efforts were on her students’ or her husband’s or her lover’s behalf.

The silences on stage enhanced my sense of the character inventing herself as she went along.  Long, pregnant silences orchestrate transitions of story, mood, tone; they are silences most actors and directors fear.  Light and Silverman plumb their depths, and in their deafening stillness, we see a woman growing older, fighting the urge to enlarge the truth while persistently diminishing realities. 

So, I am still not sure how much of what Mrs. Johnson remembers is the babbling of a woman descending into old age, seeking comfort in believing that once, even when it was totally inappropriate, she sacrificed herself to love.