How Can We Not Resist? (reprinted from Medium.com)

Photo by Aylan Kurdi

Photo by Aylan Kurdi

That photo. The Syrian baby lying face down in the water.

I can’t bear to look at it, yet I cannot look away. That beautiful child, so like children I have loved, so very like my own grandchild now living in a faraway land, who will never feel welcome in her parent’s homeland.

As the child of immigrants, who would not exist had my family not figured out how to circumvent the ban on refugees in 1939 that deemed Poles too dark, too swarthy to be admitted, especially if they were Jews, how can I not abhor the implications of that photo? How can I not scream murder, now that the Predator-in-Chief has exercised his Executive Privilege and has broken the law by banning refugees from seven countries, including Syria, whose people are being massacred and cannot stay where they are.

In school, the lessons we learned in Civics classes taught us that America was not only the land of the free and home of the brave but also the land of Checks and Balances. We have three branches of government so that no one branch becomes too powerful. Why is the judiciary allowing this flagrant law breaking to happen? Why is the Legislature not standing up for the laws they have enacted?

It is clear that it is up to us, The People to demand that our Union be treated with respect. We cannot accept the abuse, cannot allow the current state of affairs to become normalized. We must defy this executive order that, like the other 44 that have been ramrodded through in the past ten days, defies understanding. And this executive order is the one that is the most indefensible thus far.

Because this order sets a precedent. It paves the way for more heinous implications. It puts every one of us in jeopardy though it is being advertised as a measure to protect us from interlopers. In truth, it is a measure to divide us, to terrify us, to make us look for bogeymen in our closets, under our beds, next door, in our communities.

And in time, it will allow each of us to be banned in our turn.

The bare truth is that not one American has ever been killed by anyone from any of the seven banned countries. Even 9/11, which was one of the few acts of violence enacted on American soil by outsiders, was not perpetrated by anyone from any country on the banned list. It was orchestrated almost openly, defiantly, by Jihadists in Saudi Arabia, a country with whom the Bushes were accused of colluding, a country with whom the Trump Koch oligarchs who want to strangle America have deep financial ties, a country saliently not included on the ignominious list. The countries listed are homes to some of the poorest, neediest, most endangered souls on this earth.

There is a pattern here, part of the pattern being woven domestically. The Oligarchy is moving toward hording all our resources. It will eliminate the poor and the working poor and the middle class by putting health care and assistance and ample education out of our reach. And it will circle the wagons to keep the poor out and let only the wealthy in

Yet Americans buy the Kool-Aid, drink it willingly, feel grateful that they are being protected from some encroaching danger that is aiming its slings and arrows at the core of our existences. It’s easy to stick the Muslims out. So many of us don’t comprehend who they are, what they represent, what they believe. Propoganda is powerfully effective, the sugar that sweetens our sadder realities.

Terrorism by Muslims makes up less than one-third of one percent of all murders in this country. A far greater percentage are the result of domestic violence, violence that this administration would like to decriminalize.

This same administration will make it increasingly impossible for gun safety laws to be enacted. Your neighbor’s middle-aged aunt in Somalia who needs a heart transplant may be blocked from entry to our country, but guns being transported from illegal points of distribution worldwide are under no such scrutiny. Any angry husband almost anywhere in America can find a way to get a gun to kill his family.

The current nominee for Secretary of Education suggests we need guns in schools to protect our children from grizzly bears though she cannot have possibly missed the fact that not one single child has been massacred in a grizzly bear attack. Many have, however, been cut down in far more grizzly attacks by disgruntled white teenagers or white supremacists or locally disenfranchised misfits, for whom assault weapons are easier to obtain than Twizzlers.

No single school at any level in any community of any part of this country has been attacked by terrorists from anywhere abroad. But since a heavily armed, sociopathic teen gunned down twenty six- and seven-year-olds plus six of their care givers and teachers, gun violence in schools continues its steady rise.

Somehow, it has become okay for white psychopaths to terrorize our families, but it’s not okay for the huddled masses to seek refuge in the arms of Lady Liberty.

Most shocking to me is that there is a faction of pseudo-religious zealots, who call themselves pro-lifers cheering for these Draconian measures, trumpeting their approval, insisting that our resistance should be put down. They claim to advocate for the unborn children who deserve to live.

How can this photo not move them to rise up against such blatant hypocrisy?

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photo by Aylan Kurdi

 

 

 

 

 

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Green Curry for Christmas (reprinted from Medium.com)

I’m Christmas-ing in Thailand this year, and it’s a relief to be away from what Americans call holiday cheer. At the risk of being accused of crusading against Christmas, I find the holiday, as it has evolved in the US, to be gruesome and overbearing. The real celebration for me is being removed from the ubiquity of obnoxiously perseverating Christmas song in every public space, omnipresent guilt-mongering in the guise of advertising, oppressive overlays of faux cheer, and incessant arguing over how to greet one another.

No one has stopped me in the street to say, “Merry, er, happy, er . . .” Few even know that there’s a holiday going on out there. In Bangkok, except for the occasional paean to the Capitalist Christmas in the form of a display of goods for sale and a few saliently out-of-place reminders, there are few Christmas accouterments at all. It’s like Calvin Trillin’s observation that Christmas in Tibet would be a “place where folks cannot remember/That there is something special in December”(“Christmas in Qatar,” The New Yorker, 19 December,1994).

Absent is the apparent outpouring of hyperbolic Christmas spirit. Even though this is a cosmopolitan city, with strong ties to the West, a large Christian presence, and a decidedly multi-cultural persona, including a huge contingent of expatriated Americans, Germans, Belgians, Russians, et al, one is hard pressed to find reminders that joy has suddenly descended on an otherwise morose world.

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Christmas Eve, Lumpini Park, and not a Santa Claus or Christmas elf in sight (Photo by Stockton)

Some might attribute the absence of Christmas to the fact that Bangkok is 2,000 miles closer to the equator than is New York City, and December is a very hot month. Every time I emerge from an air-conditioned space, I feel like Tom Hanks’ character in Volunteers, descending from his plane into this country. “My God,” he moans. “We must be about a mile from the sun!”

But having lived in the Arizona desert for many years and having spent a few holiday seasons in Florida, I know it’s not the climate that’s to blame. People dwelling in warm climes might pay some lip service to the fact that they can’t get into the Christmas spirit without snow, sultry wintry wind, and delectable fires burning in their family rooms’ fireplaces. But they’ve adapted. No matter what the climate, people who want to decorate for Christmas will find ever more elaborate ways to deck their cacti – or palm trees, boats or sand castles – with boughs of holly and whatever else they can think of to connote the season. In Thailand, however, the landscape is bereft of palm trees disguised as Tannenbaums, of neon MERRY CHRISTMAS signs twinkling out of store windows.

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Amazing. Not a single Monitor Lizard wearing antlers! (Stock photo)

While there is no outpouring of zealotry for the trappings of Christmas, people here are eager to honor one another’s traditions. Among those people educated in the ways of The Other, there is a genuine attempt to honor the fact that some do celebrate a very important holiday on December 25.

In the lobby of my hotel the proprietors have chosen an mp3 loop to play endless celebrity covers of every Christmas song imaginable, and on the screen, a slide show of snow-covered New England and old England scenes that seem odd, out of context, dislocated. But the intent is sweet. Every staff member greets every western looking guest with a heart-felt “Merry Christmas.” But they don’t worry about offending me for not saying Happy Chanukah; they really are unaware that there is such a thing, and I would not expect it. I am touched that they wish me happy anything.

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Luckily, there are not a lot of Christmas displays in Bangkok, but they are not entirely absent. Photo by Stockton.

I doubt they’ll wish anyone a happy Kwanza, and certainly not because they are anti-Kwanza. There simply are no African-Americans staying here. Yet, I am sure that if there were or if a major Muslim holiday happened concurrently, they would be offering their best wishes with some customary acknowledgment, the equivalent of Merry Christmas. And when the time is right, they probably greet celebrants of Vesak or Diwali with appropriate greetings. There is no reluctance to call the day what it is, no fear of offending.

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The Chinese Pavilion in Lumpini Park, Bangkok, like the other temples and memorials, are devoid of Christmas accoutrements.

On Christmas Eve, in that same lobby, I returned from an outing to find banana muffins laid out on a table in front of a sign scrawled in a childlike cursive that said, “Free. Merry Christmas.” I smiled at the desk clerk and bowed with my hands together to show my gratitude in the Thai way. She grinned back at me, bowing and likewise holding her hands together, saying, “Christmas cake. Very good.”

I asked the clerk if she celebrates Christmas. “Oh, no,” she said. “New Year only.”

I have never been a fan of the flap over what to say in the holiday season. It’s absurd, at least. Christmas is a specific day, and on that day to say Merry Christmas seems totally appropriate, especially in our country, which has designated Christmas a national holiday. To wish Happy Holidays on that day, seems as absurd as wishing someone a Merry Christmas the day after Thanksgiving, when many holidays approach.

We could take a lesson from my hosts here in Bangkok. If we embrace each day and call it what it is, if we honor our collectivity by understanding that Happy Holidays is all-inclusive, we show our respect for one another, for the individual attributes that make each of us a person. We acknowledge our differences while accentuating our common humanness.

What can be bad about that?

See Me, Brother*

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A brother stopped me on the street Saturday.

I was headed east, across 125th Street, toward the Metro-North station, waiting at the light on Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd, when the man gently grabbed my arm and pointed me toward the group of Black Israelites handing out leaflets. On a milk crate, in the center of the group, a muscular young man dressed in a flamboyant imitation of the Biblical coat of many colors, shouted angrily into his amped-up mic.

“You really need to hear this,” my would-be Virgil whispered harshly without letting go of my arm.

It sounded like a threat. But I listened anyway. For as long as I could stand it.

“ Look around you, white man. See what you have done, you bitches and whores. These people are the sons and daughters of the slaves you persecuted. . . . you should feel ashamed. You should be consumed with guilt.”

Virgil stared at me and tightened his grip as I grunted and attempted to walk away.

“There is much to learn here, “ he insisted.

I nodded, and just as gently as he had grasped me, I pried his fingers off my arm and went on my way, shaking my head.

He was right. There was much to learn here, for all of us. But the lessons should not be about guilt. I could recite a litany of the myriad ways guilt has plagued me all my life, but guilt is irrelevant here. Except that I have learned all too well that guilt is destructive, and promoting guilt will do nothing to close the chasm that divides our union. To heal our country’s cancerous racism, we need to stand together, to learn to know one another, and guilt will only drive us further apart.

Besides, I am not guilty. I am responsible, yes. But my responsibility is to build cohesion, to encourage unity. I am not responsible for the actions of those who came long before me, reprehensible as they were. I am responsible to teach my students, to lead my grandchildren, to show my compatriots what I know about communion and cooperation. I eschew the condescension of tolerance, model equanimity. I care deeply that we humans treat one another with respect, kindness, empathy. But I am not to blame for those invading, marauding Europeans, who raped and ravaged Native and African Americans.

Since, to my knowledge, I wasn’t around in the bad old days of colonization, I hope that if some other iteration of myself was, she would have stood up against the forces of evil, would have argued for peaceful coexistence with the indigenous people, would have shared rather than stolen the land. And I hope that that earlier entity would have fought to abolish slavery, resisted the lynch mobs, fought for human rights, argued for true equality, made art or some contribution toward the effort to humanize — a notion nowhere near the same as to civilize — this country.

I am proud to say that my great-grandfather Hiram H. Terwilliger eagerly enlisted in the Union Army in 1861, long before the draft was imposed in 1863. He was already 27 by then, old enough to let younger men go ahead of him, and he was a Knickerbocker, a privileged member of the landed gentry with plenty of resources to buy a surrogate to serve for him. But he believed in the cause, abhorred slavery, had no patience for the abomination of white supremacy. He reenlisted after his first term and fought valiantly at the Second Battle of Bull Run, only allowing himself to be mustered out of service after he nearly died. In fact, old Hiram made medical history because of his foolhardy bravery. A minié ball split the bone of his left leg before it lodged itself on the outer side, and he kept fighting until, according to the surgeons who attended him, he was “struck again by a round bullet on the left side of his chest.” That bullet passed through him, grazing his lungs and liver, and left him miraculously in tact. Twice he was placed on the pile of corpses and would have been burned had he not groaned; he somehow managed to beat the odds by surviving yellow fever, sepsis and several surgeries without benefit of anesthesia, and then he returned to Ellenville, where, as a lay minister in his Dutch Reformed community, he preached for peaceful reconstruction and for universal voting rights till he died in 1920, at age 87.

While great Grandfather Terwilliger was fighting with Johnny Reb, my mother’s grandfathers, living in opposite corners of the Ukraine, were staving off Cossacks, defending their young sons from mandatory conscription and their daughters from molestation. To escape pogroms, both families migrated East to Poland’s Pale of Settlement. One of my great grandfathers was a rabbi, who stayed in Poland but sent both his male and female children to the university in Austria, and the other was an inn keeper, who dodged the Russians, rested in Warsaw, and eventually ran a hotel in Vienna. Surely neither of them or any of their forebears contributed to the travesty of early America.

I blanche whenever I hear myself called out for being White. I am no more responsible for the unfortunate accident of my color than is my black sister. I understand my privilege — though as a single woman nearing 70, who must work to survive, I have lost much of it — but am not ashamed. If anything, my color has made me more aware of what I can do, must do to eradicate intolerance. The color of my skin impels me to speak out, to rebuke hatred, to defend the rights of all. But it does not make me hang my head in embarrassment.

A student asked me last month if there could be such a thing as racism against whites. “If you hate me for the color of my skin,” I replied, “you are as racist as if I hate you for the color of yours. It’s that simple. Does that answer your question?”

How dare you, young man, make an assumption about me just because I am white? Would you not take offense were I to make an assumption about you just because you are dark? And what do you know about me? How do you presume to know my history? When I shake your hand, I have no preconceived notions. Why do you insist on harboring them as you refuse to shake mine?

We can work together to make police brutality go away, to promote equal rights and achieve the understanding that will stop the madness around us. But we can’t if you insist on labeling me and rejecting my sisterhood.

Truth is, you need me as much as I need you.

Those haters you think I’m one of? They have as much disdain for me as they do for you, and we can only beat them if we join hands and do it together.

*Reprinted from Medium.com

My Pledge of Allegiance We’re Still Here

“The white tape works for roommates but not for patriots.  America needs us now more than ever.  Don’t ever let them forget WE’RE STILL HERE. ” Bill Maher 11 Nov 2011

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All over Facebook I see people writing things like, “This will help” as introduction to a posting about how the “real” Donald Trump won’t do any of the things he threatened during the campaign. “He was just campaigning,” they say. “The REAL Trump is not that guy. It’s okay. We’ll be fine.”

It doesn’t help. At all.

In fact, it just makes things worse to know that in order to gain power, Trump fed a hunger for hatred and encouraged the ingestion of bigotry that caused the great belly of this country to spew forth a mandate that normalizes misogyny, sexual assault, anti-LGBTQ behavior, racism, and exclusion.

It is NOT okay, and it’s not going to be okay if we accept the soporific that the “real Donald” is a better man than that.

All the disclaimer proves once again is that Trump is a con man, a demagogue, an inveterate opportunist, and he will continue to sell his snake oil, to poison the atmosphere with lies and empty promises until his supporters, his soldiers and slaves, awake and see him for what he is: stark, raving naked. But that will take time because having drunk the Kool-Aid, the minions of deplorables, who voted this man in, are infected with the absolute conviction that they are now in command, that their man will make them great, that they will defeat the insidious factions that seek to destroy them, and it will be a good long while before they realize that they, in fact, are their own worst enemies.

Trump is not a new phenomenon. Nor is he a surprise. Plato warned us of him in The Republic, Book VIII. No fan of the common man – he referred to the populace as a great beast – Plato argued that Democracy instills a lust for absolute freedom, a concept most are not equipped to understand. The people, he suggested, will inevitably assume that the democracy entitles every man to expect to get exactly what he wants, in material goods and individual rights. But the reality is that there will be inequities, and those inequities will increase as the rich get richer , and the poor are disempowered; the democrats will seek to placate the masses by stealing from the rich, and the poor will grow impatient, feeling increasingly disenfranchised as their dreams become ever more elusive. Then, says Pluto, the great beast will elect “a violent and popular leader,” whose power will grow as he fans his people’s fears by making them distrust one another, fueling suspicions of iconoclasts of any kind. He will tax the citizenry to fund his substantial army and his schemes for world domination, and he will trust no one while relying on criminals to do his bidding. Those henchmen will collude with him to enact crimes against the democrats who elected him. It is, then, the responsibility of the thinkers, the compassionate, the artists in a society to hold the mirror up to the nature of the state they are in and engender revolution.

Of course, it doesn’t help to know that Plato predicted this anymore than that Trump may not have meant what he expounded. Naturally, he was playing a character for the purpose of rallying the people, and Plato simply gives us a historical perspective. But it sure isn’t reassuring to realize that Trump has successfully painted himself into a corner where he must make good his campaign promises.

What does help is to know that there are armies of sentient sensate people out there, who will make sure we do not go gently into that dread night of total darkness that history warns is possible. We have a window of opportunity to avert the worst, and I know for a fact that there are more who disdain what has happened than those who rejoice, and in our numbers is the strength to prevail.

So, it’s not okay, but it could be. Eventually.

I have, over the years, kept in touch with scores of my students, many of whom are now approaching or are well into their forties. They are bringing up their children with deeply humanistic values, are setting an example for the millennials to follow. In their multivarious roles, they are provoking thought, are reconstituting our intellectual infrastructures, making differences.

When I returned to earn a second Master’s Degree in Fine Arts, I sat at tables with some of the finest writers and poets and playwrights and actors and visual artists I will ever have the honor to meet, and I heard them speak, read their words, experienced their work. I have faith in these young people, most of them millennials, and I know they will carry on, will pledge their talents to keeping the country awake, to reminding us all that we must not be silent, must eschew complacency, must be unafraid to remain committed to the fight that only began in the awful campaign of 2016.

Now, in fact, the fight has escalated. Truth is, we are again engaged in a great Civil War, testing and being tested. If we are to endure, we must choose to stand up and take a side, must commit to preventing the miasma from enveloping us, from defeating us, from suffocating us.

Like so many others, I have of late been stultified by the cataclysm I awoke to on November 9. But I need to reanimate. As a woman and as a woman who has experienced sexual assault and harassment, as a first generation American, as a Jew, as the sister of a beloved man who loves men, as a teacher in the CUNY system where most of my students are considered “others,” as friend to so many iconoclasts of all shapes and sorts, as the mother and grandmother of powerful, brilliant women, I am appalled.

But it’s not over till the diva sings her last, and I hear no America singing the heroine’s dying declarations. Rather, I hear bells ringing nationwide, and they are tolling for me and for thee.

It’s not okay.

But wall is not yet lost. We can still win by working to make sure that within the next four years the siege of terror comes to a halt. We can still win by acting in a way that proves that MOST Americans welcome others into our midst and value all contributions, by standing up to bullies. We can reject the notion that only losers need help and reach out to bring comfort to the hungry and the sick. We can lobby for better health care and universal insurance, for the environment; we can educate the masses about carbon footprints, about the ethical, responsible treatment of our earth and all its creatures, including our fellow man. Et cetera. There is no end to what we can and must do, what we must do together.

Together, most importantly, we must insulate ourselves from hatred by refusing to abhor the representatives of evil that seek to subjugate us; they must be shown that they cannot own us. By being unafraid, by insisting on turning our other cheek, not in submission but in defiance, we retain our power over ourselves, and we win.

They will go low. That’s a given, but that’s okay.   Because we will go high.

 

 

 

 

Kol Nidrei

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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.

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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.)