"Variations in a Foreign Land IX: Akin. Amin. Atin.," - an evening of dance featuring works of three Filipino choreographers, Max Luna III, Gerald Casel and Leonides D. Arpon.
Oedipus Rex, directed by Joanna Chan at Sing Sing Prison, Ossining, NY (NY Times)
Inspired by the Miracle and the Vagaries of Love: choreography by Max Luna
Steeped in 50 Years of China's Subjugation: Lao She's "Teahouse," performed by Beijing People's Art Theatre
Two Reviews of "OneFamilyOneChildOneDoor"
Oedipus Max: Four Nights of Anguish and Applause
in Sing Sing
November 16, 2006
To enter a maximum-security prison to see inmates put on a Greek tragedy, in this case Oedipus Rex, at Sing Sing is to descend into an echo chamber of ironies. An ancient story of murder and banishment brought to life by banished murderers. Imaginary horrors summoned in solid flesh by men whose own stories are horrifying and real.
It’s a lot to ponder as you hand over wallet, keys, watch and train schedule at the prison entrance. As for your illusions and misperceptions about inmates and prison life, those you surrender inside.
I went to Sing Sing with the play’s director, Sister Joanna Chan of the Maryknoll order, whose headquarters is not far from the Hudson River bluffs on which Sing Sing has hunkered since the 1820s. Sister Joanna, who is petite, Chinese and in her 60s, had been working with the inmates since June, and Friday’s performance was the last in a four-night run. The cast and crew, serving time for murder, rape, robbery, assault and other crimes, called her Grandma.
We walked through long, low corridors to the auditorium, called the Chapel, with a high ceiling of exposed steel beams and the grimy yellow light of bare bulbs. Nuns and other visitors from town nibbled cheese cubes and drank coffee from paper cups. A few mingled with inmates, easy to pick out not by their air of menace but by their green pants.
There were jitters in the room, not in the audience but in the cast and crew, the bustling nerves of any amateur production. Previous nights had gone well, I was told. The play had even won over B-block, a brutal crowd. Tonight’s show was for guests, and the final chance to shine.
I met the assistant director, an inmate with a white skullcap and deep-set eyes who went by his Muslim name, Bilal. He told me how faith helped him to face his guilt in murder, and how theater polished the tarnished gem inside. Like other inmates I met, he had the taut intensity of someone gripping his beliefs tightly, so as not to let them get away.
Sing Sing, the former home of Old Sparky, is not widely known as a progressive place. But its theater program is a rarity in New York prisons. It relies on a nonprofit group, Rehabilitation Through the Arts, and the savvy benevolence of Sing Sing’s superintendent, Brian Fischer, who considers its virtues self-evident.
The inmates chose Oedipus Rex because they had done more than a dozen productions, including Jitney, by August Wilson, and wanted something really difficult. Sister Joanna persuaded them to choose Sophocles over Shakespeare, since it was more accessible and would fit in the maximum allowed two hours.
She took me backstage before the curtain rose. The cast
and crew held hands in a circle and prayed for a good show. Jocasta,
Oedipus’s wife and mother, was an actress from New York City and
the cast’s only non-inmate. She told everyone how proud she was.
Oedipus, with tongue-in-cheek pomposity, demanded silence and offered
encouragement. Please, let’s kill them all,” he said. We
all knew what he meant.
This production went to Greece by way of the five boroughs, as the ancients were summoned to be asked important questions about a foretold murder. But the men hit their marks precisely, and moved and spoke with elegance and conviction. If they were haunted by the play’s resonance in their lives, they didn’t show it. They seemed like people trying to produce art, and in so doing to somehow assert an identity better than the one of murderer, rapist, robber, that had overwhelmed all others.
As I watched, I wondered what it would be like to be defined by my own worst sins. It struck me that when people are locked up for horrible crimes, a lot of goodness and beauty necessarily get locked up too. It also seemed that the Theban society onstage, though afflicted by plague, vengeance and divine cruelty, was probably gentler and saner than the one the inmates knew. Its members clearly cared for one another, and were not numb to grief.
When Oedipus made his final entrance, blinded and lurching, from stage left, the Chorus trembled, and shock and sorrow rose on cue in the hushed auditorium, just as it has for the last 2,500 years.
Sister Joanna told me later that chorus members had been reluctant in rehearsal to touch one another, though they eventually got past it. Oedipus, a man of conspicuous self-control, had particular trouble losing it for his final breakdown, when he collapses into the arms of Creon, his uncle and brother-in-law. He didn’t pull it off until Monday’s dress rehearsal. On Friday, Sister Joanna thought she saw real tears.
After the curtain fell and the cheers and applause finally died, the crew joined the cast onstage, with officers quickly posted on the left and right steps. The inmates crowded the footlights, straining for the hands of audience members who filed slowly past to say thank you, great job, wonderful show. Clearing the room of visitors in small escorted groups took nearly an hour. The inmates never stopped chattering and hugging, their faces shining with relief, and with the yearning to savor every moment before the spell was broken and they were taken to their cells.
Review | Luna
Max Luna III took his audience on a winding ride on Friday night in choreography presented by the Yangtze Repertory Theater of America at the Schimmel Center at Pace University. The evening opened with two dances so blandly generic — though one, “Cold Song,” featured a powerful performance by Jason Jordan — that you wondered not where the real Mr. Luna was hiding, but if he indeed existed.
Mr. Luna, a former Alvin Ailey dancer, emerged in two pieces that made it plain that he had something of his own to say and the skill to say it. He works in a modern-dance idiom colored by the traditional dancing of his native Philippines, represented in “Tinig Ng Lupa,” the evening’s closing dance.
“The Hurt We Embrace,” to music by Jan Kaczmarek, was a traditional wrecked-relationship duet, but the vagaries of love were observed and communicated with extra shrewdness in choreography performed with affecting intensity by Joseph Watson II and Roberta Sorrenti. Everything came together in Mr. Luna’s new “Mga Awit (A Love Cycle for Voice, Cello & Piano),” danced to music full of dramatic incident, composed by Michael Dadap and performed live by Sal Malaki (tenor), Marc Tagle (cello) and Cynthia Guerrero DeLeon (piano).
Mr. Luna’s program notes describe the piece as “dedicated to my partner, Alan, who has shown me that the miracle of love renews and grows through the cycles of life.” The suite brims with cycles of growth and renewals, particularly in two group segments that stand out for their unexpected thrusts and patterns. Mr. Luna knows how to move his dancers and juxtapose them and his onstage musicians. The bright opening solo by Matt Anctil and a lush duet for Mr. Jordan and Mica Bernas are as authoritative, and feel as personal. Good dancers all, so why no program biographies?
LAO SHE'S "TEAHOUSE"
BY BEIJING PEOPLE'S ART THEATRE
Steeped in 50 Years of China's Subjugation
By WILBORN HAMPTON, NEW YORK TIMES
First performed in 1958, "Teahouse" has been a favorite work of one of China's favorite writers, before and after the Cultural Revolution. The current revival, which is performed in Mandarin with English supertitles and sponsored in New York by the Yangtze Repertory Theater, is playing a limited run that ends tonight at Pace Downtown Theater, 3 Spruce Street in Lower Manhattan.
The play covers 50 years of Chinese history, and a unifying theme that runs through it is the subjugation, often willing, of China to foreign interests and powers through the first half of the 20th century. Spending an evening at the Yutai teahouse with the Beijing Theater helps explain the excesses of Maoism.
All of the action takes place in the teahouse, owned by Wang Lifa. The cross section of its customers range from pimps, gangsters and opium addicts to rich idlers who bring songbirds in their cages for entertainment, government spies, secret policemen and rebels. Tea is not the only commodity sold there.
The first act takes place in 1898, on the eve of the Boxer Uprising, as the Qing dynasty is in its death throes and although the Yutai denizens still wear their hair in pigtails, British influence is paramount. Poverty in the countryside is rampant, and peasants go to the teahouse to sell their children to wealthy mandarins.
The second act jumps forward 20 years to the time just after the death of Yuan Shih-kai, the successor to Sun Yat-sen as head of the Chinese republic. Warlords, each backed by a foreign power, have split China apart and the country is in a state of perpetual civil war. Wang has tried to keep his teahouse intact by taking in students as boarders and adding entertainment by way of a gramophone. Many of his old customers still appear, but in vastly altered circumstances.
The final act takes place in 1948. The Japanese occupiers have left, but the Kuomintang, also under foreign influence, has again turned the tables on the teahouse's customers, many of them bynow the sons and daughters of those in Act I and some of whom want to tear down the teahouse and replace it with shops full of foreign goods.
If at one level "Teahouse" seems like a primer
on pre-Communist Chinese history, it is Lao She's development of his
characters over two generations that makes it exciting theater. A stellar
cast of about 30 give a brilliant master class in ensemble acting, led
by Liang Guanhua as Wang, Pu Cunxin as Master Chang and Yang Lixin as
Master Qin. This is the first visit to New York by the Beijing People's
Art Theater, and I hope it returns again soon.
China's restrictive birth control policies are customarily viewed from the Western perspective of individual choice or as a factor in population statistics. Joanna Chan properly brings the focus to the family unit and the joy that new life can bring. The setting for her new play is a small village in southern China in 1987.
The year is significant because that is when the Chinese government began to enforce the one child per family policy on a rigorous basis. Birth quotas assigned to each district could not be exceeded without incurrlng severe penalties including loss of income for the village and demotion for its officials. With these negative incentives in place, forced abortions quickly made up for "lapses" in birth control Chang (Brian Yang) and his wife (Christine Simpson) have already met their quota with one daughter (Nancy Lan). With another pregnancy for his wife, Chang first of all hopes for a boy that will be able to support him in old age. The village Neighborhood Committee has already had one fail (= unplanned second child) this year and they can't afford another quota- busting baby out of the Chang family. (Interestingly enough, the official sector as represented in this play is not so pitiless that they would do away with a child once it is born.) The pressure is on as the Committee gets wind of Mrs. Chang's condition: menacing visits increase until they attempt to abduct her to a handy abortion clinic. Chang foils this maneuver, but in the process of defending his family he has found that having a son seems secondary to gaining a new addition to their lives. He has even picked a unisex name: Aiming High. Massive corruption resolves the situation to everyone's relief.
In Chinese society his change of heart marks an astounding conversion, and playwright Joanna Chan properly makes it the central theme. OneFamilyOneChildOneDoor could have been a dirge, but Chang tells the story by tapping into Chinese people's irrepressible sense of humor. Neighbors' small foibles and the absurdities of rule by decree lighten the mood. Personalities are well differentiated among the village and dialogue flows naturally. This run at Bank Street Theater marks the New York debuts for many of the participants, and nearly all were working with Yangtze Repertory Theatre for the first time. As such it is a great pleasure to see a production so well rehearsed. Chan's direction never disappoints, and her usual excellent blocking and apt gestures are very much present. Also excellent on the tech side are Anne Lommel's set, Dana Sterling's lighting and Xu HaoJian's costumes largely imported from China."
Funny About China's One-Child Policy
What is funny about China's inhumane population control policy? Nothing. Yet laughs were abundant recently at the Bank Street Theatre in Greenwich Village, as the black comedy "OneFamilyOneChildOneDoor" played a limited engagement at the Yangtze Repertory Theatre to celebrate the company's 10th anniversary. The comedy-drama was written by Joanna Chan, who grew up in Guangzhou, China. Although the play is set in 1987 it feels more like the 12th century with the barbarism portrayed.
The theater, near the Westside highway, is quite small with a three-quarter round stage, and it quickly filled to capacity on a recent Friday night. The play, set in a small village in southern China, tells the tale of Chang, a prosperous farmer with a teenage daughter whom he adores. His wife becomes pregnant with what he hopes will be a son to carry on the family name. Unfortunately, however, the yearly birth quota for the entire town is eight. The new birth would exceed that quota and bring punishment on the poor village in the form of a large financial penalty. In the play, China has also recently amended its population policy, limiting families to one child. Faced with the prospect of running up against the state's policies, Chang decides to raise the money to pay off the penalty.
I went to the play as part of a fundraiser for Expectant Mothercare, a pregnancy crisis center. Thus I knew that the play was likely to include some pro-life undertones. But apparently the couple in front of me was caught off-guard and left the theater at the intermission. I was walking behind them when I overheard the woman telling her companion that had she known the play was a political commentary on abortion she would never have attended.
She was mistaken to see the play as political. This was not an anti-abortion play. Rather, it was a life-affirming drama that brought into sharp contrast the terrible price women pay for being born female in many parts of the world.
In the play, Chang calls his wife "the woman who would not die" - a grim reference to her parents' attempts to fulfill the wishes of the state. Chang's wife jokes about how her father tried to drown her in a bucket of urine when she was a toddler and how she tipped it over and crawled away. Later, when she was a young girl, her mother threw her in a hole and tried to stone her to death. But, she laughs, she used the rocks to climb out of the hole.
Chang's mother, who has to kill children of her own to please the communists, cannot understand why her son would sacrifice his wealth to have more than one child. "What if it's a girl?" she asks. The audience also learns that Chang's teenage daughter, who is called "girl," is so referred to because females are not even given names, as they may be disposed of.
"OneFamilyOneChildOneDoor" may be a dark comedy, but its story is not a fable. Horrifying as it is, the play reflects reality. In a soon to be published book, "The Good Women of China," by Xinran Xue, the author writes that of the 36 virtues in Chinese tradition, nothing exceeds the birth of a son. To be without male heirs is considered in China, "an evil that negates them all." The book is a collection of stories recounting female suffering that brings together an image of China as a place of primitive horror.
It's a picture that is being painted every day as reports come out of China describing the barbarism of its government's policies. In August 2000, it was reported in the European press, in Hubei Province, a Mrs. Liu was forced to have a late-term abortion that accidentally resulted in a live birth. A doctor at the hospital sent the parents home, then tended and inoculated the child before delivering it to its parents. Family planning officials were waiting when the baby was delivered, seized the baby, and drowned it in a rice paddy before the parents' eyes.
Such horror stories are common in China. But the sad fact is that China's one-child policy has backfired and created a demographic catastrophe. The genocide has become so systematic that ultrasounds weed out female fetuses that are then aborted. As a result, the latest census indicates that there is now a shortage of women in China, making it hard for men to find women to start families. China is facing a future with over 30 million unmarried men who, officials fear, will become violent and rebellious.
Communist China is not the only country that relegates women to second-class citizenship. In India, where female infanticide is also common, Mother Teresa founded a home for abandoned babies where thousands of girls are rescued from certain death. In Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to leave the country without the permission of a male family member.
Even in America, cultural mores survive and dictate the fate of females from other cultures. A Staten Island mother who is an Albanian Muslim confessed to me that she aborted her eighth child, a little girl, because she had finally given her husband the son he wanted the year before.
I, a mother of three daughters,
came away from the theater with a feeling of intense gratitude for having
been born a woman in 20th century America. It is truly the land of the
free. Advocates for an international women's rights treaty are missing
the point when they promote a document aimed at creating universal abortion
rights. What they really should be fighting for is a woman's right to
let her children, male and female, live.