Category Archives: cross cultural understanding

Theatre Review: “Brimful of Asha” Brings You Home to the Theatre

Ravi Jain and Asha Jain in "A Brimful of Asha"

Ravi Jain and Asha Jain in “A Brimful of Asha”

Toronto’s Ravi Jain is at home in the theatre, and with A Brimful of Asha, at Soulpepper till Saturday during its national tour, he and his mom, Asha, make everyone feel at home, greeting each audience member with a fresh samosa and a “Thank you for coming!” Are they getting into character or just being themselves? “I’m not an actor,” begins Asha. What they present, with more reality than The Bachelor, is “not a play” but “a dispute” over the attempt to arrange Ravi’s marriage.

Asha and Ravi give contrasting perspectives on what happened when Ravi, at age 27, went to his parents’ homeland India to give an acting workshop in 2007 and they decided to come along to find him a bride. On each side of the generational and cultural divide, the question seems so clear cut whether it is for the parents to choose when and to whom their child will be married. But there are points to be made on both sides. As Apu says on the Simpsons, “Mother, come on, you know that 1 in 25 arranged marriages ends in divorce.”

Asha wears a vibrant fuchsia sari; her son wears a traditional Indian shirt with jeans and sneakers. No costume designer is credited, as the two are surely wearing their own clothes. The simple, homey set is a dining table and two chairs on a rug-covered platform, framed by a curtain in the centre of which is a wide-screen monitor where Jain periodically refers to family photos, maps, and video clips (set designer, Julie Fox; lighting and video designer, Beth Kates).

Ravi Jain is the director of this show he created with his mother primarily through improvisation, and he is an experienced, thoroughly trained actor and award-winning director (2012 Pauline McGibbon Award; founding artistic director of Why Not Theatre; an artist in residence at Soulpepper Theatre Company; inaugural artistic director in residence at The Theatre Centre), but while it is sometimes evident that Ravi is stepping in to keep a scene on track, it is untrained Asha, a self-described “dedicated housewife and abused mother”, who steals scene after scene. This is the role Asha was born to play.

Although the duo has performed this show many times in many cities since its premiere at Tarragon in 2012, it does not feel over-rehearsed, in fact it feels perpetually spontaneous, and it probably is a little different every night. The show is primarily humorous but with an undercurrent of tension always ready to pull you in. There is little by way of overt action and the simple production looks easy, an occasionally heated conversation as mother and son sit at the table drinking tea, but the story they tell is a rollercoaster ride, a contentious and intimate conversation to which they welcome us as witnesses. Asha very much seems to be enjoying being herself, and yet the two of them are going over a lot of emotionally charged memories and it must be a taxing experience to relive such painful and personal conflict in front of a packed audience night after night.

As early as age five, Ravi regularly entertained the “extended family” that was his community by mimicking India’s legendary film actor Amitabh Bachchan. Asha teases that, by pursuing a life in the theatre, Ravi is not allowing himself to move on from the first of life’s four stages, establishing a “real” profession, onto the next stage of finding a wife. The debate is real, but so is the love. At least in the context of the Jain family, the intent of arranged marriage is not to dictate but to ensure a secure and happy future for the child. Fittingly, the name Asha means “hope”.

 

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I’ve Been at the Theatre

Take a look at what I’ve seen so far this month:

Theatre Review: Yukonstyle at Berkeley Street Theatre

The most intensely Canadian play you are likely to see, Yukonstyle is not sentimental or didactic; it is a deep gaze into the soul of Canada. And it’s not just for Canadians. It’s being staged this year not only in Montreal and Toronto, but also in Paris, Brussels, Innsbruck and Heidelberg. Packed with Canadian context but devoid of cliché, Yukonstyle would be compelling fiction, yet much of the content is taken from too-soon-forgotten news reports and too-readily-dismissed police investigations. Over the past two decades, 600 native women in Canada have disappeared or been murdered.

On a cold Yukon night, with the gruesome details of the Robert Pickton trial unfolding on television, a rebellious and entitled white anglo teenage girl hitchhikes into the lives of a Japanese immigrant and her roommate who is tormented by questions about his native mother who disappeared from Vancouver when he was two.

English language premiere runs until October 27th.

Read my full review at http://www.postcity.com/Eat-Shop-Do/Do/October-2013/Theatre-Review-Yukonstyle-at-Berkeley-Street-Theatre/

 

Theatre Review: Venus In Fur

Based on the 1870 erotic novel Venus in Furs by Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, from whose name is derived the word “masochist”, David Ives’ 2010 play Venus in Fur is a sex-charged gender politics comedy bridging the 19th and 21st centuries. It’s like Oleanna meets Pygmalion meets Dan Savage meets bell hooks. Closing October 27th.

Read my full review at http://www.postcity.com/Eat-Shop-Do/Do/October-2013/Theatre-Review-Venus-In-Fur/

 

Theatre Review: The Best Brothers

Daniel MacIvor’s latest play continues at Tarragon Theatre until October 27th. When a couple of very different brothers learn their mother has died, they have to find a way to deal with each other, and her dog. You can tell it’s a comedy because the death comes at the beginning rather than at the end.

Read my full review at http://www.postcity.com/Eat-Shop-Do/Do/October-2013/Theatre-Review-The-Best-Brothers/

Theatre Review: Les Misérables

Les Misérables! Again? Isn’t that so 25 years ago? And yet, themes from Victor Hugo’s epic story — the Law versus the People, the 99 per cent versus the powers that be — continue to be reflected in the news. Do you see a parallel between the barricade in Les Mis and the G20 barricade? Do you hear the people sing, “Idle No More?” Even if not, the music keeps the audience coming back. Canada’s Iranian-born Ramin Karimloo as Jean Valjean is worth the price of admission.

This gritty new rendition of the world’s longest-running musical, with physicality in the performances evoking, more than previous productions, the brutality of the epoch and the story, has no gigantic Lazy Susan rotating the set and actors, which was a pivotal feature of the previous productions. Now the performers are the spectacle.

Read my full review at http://www.postcity.com/Eat-Shop-Do/Do/October-2013/Theatre-Review-Les-Misrables-at-Princess-of-Wales-Theatre/

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My New Play: Father Hero Traitor Son

New play, new blog!

The play and the blog are in progress. Please, read the blog, tolerate the self-promotion, and get ready to see the play at the Fundy Fringe Festival in Saint John, NB, August 21 to 25!

http://fatherherotraitorson.wordpress.com/about/

Fundy Fringe Festival 2013

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Casting Around for the Fringe

While spending the winter in my hometown Saint John, New Brunswick, I was doing research for my new play, Father Hero Traitor Son. Pondering how and where I might stage this historical drama, I wondered about the possibility of starting a theatre festival in Saint John, maybe even a Fringe festival. I thought, “That’ll never happen, or at least no time soon.” I came back to Toronto and theatre friends asked me if I was going to enter the new Fringe Festival in Saint John. I said, “!???!??!?” And so it was, and so I did. http://www.fundyfringefestival.com

Fundy Fringe Festival 2013

Almost the only thing Father Hero Traitor Son has in common with the play I co-wrote and performed in at Toronto Fringe 2012, Eat, Poo, Love, is that it is based on real people and events.

Eat Poo Love review

Typical review of Eat Poo Love

Father Hero Traitor Son is about a decorated Canadian hero of the First World War, who had immigrated from Japan to British Columbia in 1905, and his son—born and raised in Kamloops—who was in Japan when World War Two broke out. At the end of the war, the son was on trial for war crimes.

This is a play about choices, fate, and identity. What defines a person as a Canadian, a hero, a traitor, a father, a son?

One might say it is audacious for a hakujin such as myself to write a play about complex sensitive issues central to Japanese-Canadian identity. To a certain extent it is an audacious undertaking. However, I am doing so at the suggestion of, and with input from, a direct descendant of the characters depicted, and furthermore, I am a Canadian writing about Canadians, and I am a son writing about father and son. (I did not take my research so far as to have a son.)

Father Hero Traitor Son will go into rehearsal in July. It will premiere in Saint John from August 21 to 25, and I am currently in Toronto. Rehearsals will happen either in Toronto or Saint John, depending where I find actors to play the lead roles:

  • male, 50s, issei (Japanese immigrant to Canada), speaks with Japanese accent
  • male, 31, nissei (Canadian son of Japanese immigrants), native English speaker

As time is short and the land is wide, I am asking auditioners to contact me as soon as possible so we can communicate by Skype or by submitting a video.

Please post your questions, suggestions or comments below, or contact me by email: evanwrites (at) gmail (dot) com

The Fundy Fringe Festival is looking for volunteers. Please help make this inaugural festival a success! http://www.fundyfringefestival.com/volunteers.html

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Half-Irish Blues

I grew up believing I was Scottish (which is a bit daft because I was born and raised in Canada, as were both sides of my family for three generations) but when I was 30-something (probably years of age) my maternal grandmother was ranting about my Irish heritage. What does this have to do with me? “Didn’t anyone ever tell you, Evan? The ancestors of both of your grandmothers were from Ireland.”

Proud to Be Irish, flag

Suddenly a deep dark family secret came to light: I was not simply, as I’d always been told, a descendent of pale redheaded people who tended sheep and subsisted on oats and whisky in the northern part of the island of Britain, I was every bit as much a descendent of pale redheaded people who tended sheep and subsisted on potatoes and whiskey in the northern part of the island of Ireland! In an instant, my self-image was tossed in a raging wind of uncertainty!

In my bewilderment and rage, I went ’round the pub and drowned my sorrows in beer after beer. At closing time, as the bartender was rolling me out the door he said, “What are you, Irish?” And suddenly I understood. I’m a double Celt half-breed.

irish yoga

Now, instead of being woefully ignorant of Scottish Gaelic, my burden is doubled by my ignorance of Irish Gaelic. I’ll have to fill my sporran with potatoes. And it won’t be easy playing the bagpipes with one arm and the bodhrán with the other. Half the time I would otherwise have devoted to trying to comprehend Robbie Burns’ Address to a Haggis must henceforth be devoted to trying to fathom James Joyce’s Ulysses. And now my options seem to be limited in religious matters, much as in Canadian politics, to only two possibilities: the orange or the green. But what is presented as black and white is all grey to me.

Only sometimes can I distinguish whether an accent is Irish or Scottish, or whether a foxy redhead is a bonnie lassie or a pretty Colleen. And I’m less expert in matters of Mc and Mac than people have come to expect of me.

Fortunately, there is an easy way out of my dilemma. Based on my appearance, people often ask if I’m German. Since I speak more German than Gaelic anyway, henceforth, I should just reply, “Ja”.

Am I Scottish or Irish? Nein!

Scottish or Irish? Nein!

Whatever you consider yourself to be, Happy Saint Patrick’s Day to you!

Please also read my brief and rather silly St Patrick’s Day article http://www.postcity.com/Eat-Shop-Do/Do/March-2013/Seven-things-all-Torontonians-should-know-about-Ireland-for-St-Patricks-Day/

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Who Needs International Women’s Day?

Who needs International Women’s Day? Didn’t Mary Wollstonecraft and Sojourner Truth take care of all that two centuries ago? “Women can vote. What more do they want?” Hmm…

Malala Yousafzai, 14-year-old girl shot for speaking out about her right to education, in 2012

Malala Yousafzai, 14-year-old girl shot for speaking out about her right to education, in 2012. She can’t be stopped; but she can be supported.

If you are unaware of the continuing practices of female genital mutilation, the forbidding of education for females, acid attacks and ironically-named “honour killings”, your ignorance must be blissful.

And if you think these are all problems of faraway places, not here in safe and civilized Canada, you must be avoiding mainstream news even more vigorously than I do.

Perhaps you are unmoved by the frequency with which Canadian Aboriginal women are murdered or go missing, but don’t imagine such crimes are limited to one group or community.

Statistics Canada declares, “violence against women in Canada continues to be a persistent and ongoing problem.”

Who needs International Women’s Day? We all do. Learn the facts, and let women have their day.

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Black History and You

Valentine's Day and Black History Month, lonely and white

Along with the USA, Canada and the UK celebrate Black History Month. If you are one of those who would ask rhetorically “What does that have to do with me?”, please consider the following question.

What do you and I have in common with Dr Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Dick Gregory, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglas, Jack Johnson, Louis Armstrong, Josephine Baker, Nelson Mandela, Maya Angelou, Kunta Kinte, Ricky Gervais, Richard Dawkins, Muhammad, Moses, Jesus, Madonna, Adolf Hitler, Kim Jong-eun, L’il Kim, Kim Kardashian and the Ku Klux Klan?

We all came from Africa. (And if you deny that fact, enjoy your 4,000-year-old flat Earth. Careful you don’t fall off the edge.)

Familiar faces from African-American history

Familiar Faces from African-American History, Caitlin Tamony bbc.co_.uk_

You may hear it claimed that “Black History Month” is vitally significant, especially for a continent not yet free of ignorance-based tensions and hostilities. You may hear that Black History Month has outlived its usefulness — “We all saw Roots on TV.” You may hear that Black History Month is self-defeating—it should all be just History. As Morgan Freeman said, “I don’t want a black history month. Black history is American history.”

As with so many debates, there is truth to be found on all sides. Only the ignorant claim the ignorance is all behind us now. And history should, indeed, be history for one and for all. If only there were no ignorance amongst historians, publishers, educators and media.

painting by Charles T. Webber in the Cincinnati Art Museum_underground_railroad

The Underground Railroad, Charles T. Webber, Cincinnati Art Museum

So let it be History Month, and let’s all look into a bit of history—look up something you know nothing about, or investigate whether certain “facts” you like to quote are as solid as you have always believed. Just notice the limitations of the sources you check. Who wrote what you read and what are the foundations of their claims?

Regardless of how direct or indirect you consider your African heritage to be, why not take a moment or two this month to do yourself and the world a favour: learn something new about our collective past.

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Deaf Jam: the Poetry of ASL

Deaf Jam

Deaf Jam documentary (USA 2011)

Deaf Jam, a documentary which celebrates American Sign Language poetry, is screening on the afternoon of May 10th at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. People unfamiliar with sign language may find it difficult to conceive of ASL poetry. “Like, how does it rhyme?” Poetry in any language is about more than the sounds of the words and sentences; it is about creative ways of expressing ideas and emotions. And ASL is at no disadvantage in that department.

Whereas a word in English is made of syllables and letters, a sign in ASL has the following five components:

  1. Orientation (which way the palm is facing)
  2. Location (of hand(s) in relation to head/body)
  3. Hand shape(s)
  4. Movement (of hands/head/body)
  5. Facial expression

By manipulating these elements, an ASL speaker can express simple and complex thoughts in amazing, innovative ways. Sign language is equal to spoken language in emotional and intellectual range, and, just as English does, ASL uses metaphor, connotation, wordplay, and all manner of poetic devises. ASL is handy with puns and can be flat out ironic. English poetry can make patterns of word sounds; ASL poetry can make patterns of sign shapes. Signs can be shuffled, pulled apart, and reconfigured in ways parallel to how words can be in English and other languages.

ASL does not differ from spoken languages in its boundless capacity to convey even the most nuanced and subtle concepts and feelings. The difference is that, whereas a spoken language is, for a hearing person, an auditory experience—even when read silently—, sign language is visual (except for the Deaf-blind, for whom sign language is tactile), and although it can be transcribed for academic purposes, ASL is not written and read communicatively. Therefore, ASL poetry is not written and read; ASL poetry is performed.

Remembering the observation that, Talking about music is like dancing about architecture,I will not try to describe ASL poetry, but for a hint about the sorts of things involved, consider this scene from the film.

In Deaf Jam, Aneta Brodski,* a student at Lexington School for the Deaf in Queens, NYC, is participating in an extra-curricular poetry program.

When Aneta introduces herself, she fingerspells her name (lightning fast) as one normally does, but when she performs (“raps”) her name, she signs each letter (designated by shape) with movement/location that incorporates the meaning of another sign so that her name becomes a story:

A + “dress up”; N + “look at me”; E + “I’m cool”; T + “walking in high heels”; A + “stumble”.

There is a lot more to ASL poetry than that; it’s really something you have to see. And the same goes for Deaf Jam, so if you can, go see the Canadian premiere on May 10th at 3:30pm, Bloor Cinema, 506 Bloor Street West, Toronto. If not, find out more at http://www.deafjam.org/ or PBS.

*Aneta, like her parents, was born deaf. Her language, and the language of her family, is ASL. Statistically, this is uncommon. The typically hearing parents of Deaf children have to—or should!—learn signing as a second language.

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You Are Here: Iceland, Where Björk Comes From

Björk Biophilia

Björk's 2011 album Biophilia "combines nature, music, and technology"

In honour of the inimitable musical artist Björk, who was interviewed by Stephen Colbert this week to promote her new album Biophilia, I decided to devote this edition of You Are Here to her homeland.

I know you could find it on a map, but I bet you’ve never been there and don’t intend to go any time soon; and I think you likely know as little about it as I do. So let’s see what we can find out.

Although Iceland is culturally European, it is kind of “out there”, and not just geographically. Here’s a nifty example:

Instead of using family names, Icelanders use patronymics and matronymics. Hence, the full name of the above mentioned artist, Björk Gudmundsdottir, means “Björk, Gudmund’s daughter”. For this reason, the Icelandic phonebook is listed alphabetically by first name.

This might sound impractical were it not for the fact that there are not very many Icelanders. Over the centuries the population has periodically been cut down by half as a result of plagues, famine-inducing volcanic eruptions, and mass migration to Manitoba, leaving the current population at about 320,000 (considerably smaller than Halifax) in an area of 103,000 km2 (bigger than Portugal, smaller than Cuba) — and 62.7% of that is tundra. Sound like Canada? Indeed both countries have a population density just above 3 people per  km2.

Iceland, geyser catland

Geyser Catland, Iceland. Image: Terekhova via Flickr

Iceland has many geysers, (one of which, Geysir, gives us the English word for… You guessed it!), lots of fjords and hundreds of volcanoes. What Icelanders lack in firewood, they make up for with geothermal power. Iceland kicks environmental ass.

First settled in the ninth century by the Norse (although it’s hard to think of Vikings “settling down”), but possibly previously visited by Scots, Iceland’s original population of was (according to genetic studies) of Nordic and Gaelic origin.

Iceland was granted independence from Denmark in 1918 and formally declared itself a republic on 17 June 1944 (following Allied occupation during WWII while Denmark was occupied by Germany). The current Prime Minister, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, has twice made Time magazine’s top ten list of female world leaders.

Icelandic Language Day (dagur íslenskrar tungu) is celebrated on 16 November. On top of Icelandic, (an inflected North Germanic language of Old Norse derivation, largely unchanged over the centuries), English and Danish are studied in school and widely spoken in Iceland. Icelandic Sign Language (based on Danish Sign Language) was officially recognised as a minority language in 2011. Your first Icelandic word is Ísland. Guess what it means. (Hint: it’s the same as the French word l’Islande and the Korean word 아이슬란드 .)

The Canadian Connection

The Icelandic currency is the króna (ISK). But with the economic crisis and the Euro looking shaky, there was talk of Iceland adopting the Canadian dollar.

There are 88,000 people of Icelandic descent living in Canada (the largest community outside of Iceland), and Islendingadagurinn, The Icelandic Festival of Manitoba, has been celebrated for well over a century. So at the end of July, after seeing my play in the Toronto Fringe, you can go to Gimli and have some wholesome Viking fun. If you can’t get to Gimli, find out what you’ve missed by reading Icelandic Connection (formerly The Icelandic Canadian magazine). Or stick to the classics, like the 14th century Eiríks saga, which describes Erik the Red’s pre-Columbian voyage to Vinland (Newfoundland).

The temperature in the capital, Reykjavik (pop. 118,000), will be a few degrees above freezing for the next week or so; yet another reason to visit Iceland without delay. And here’s one more. If you’re ever dickin’ around Iceland and find yourself hard up for entertainment, you might want to visit the The Icelandic Phallological Museum.

P.S.

Now I have a regular byline that links to my blog. Henceforth, my Post City articles (such as my latest, on Black History Month) will be followed with: Evan Andrew Mackay is a Toronto playwright and humourist who writes about culture and social justice.

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Merry Winter Solstice! Here Comes the Sun…

Don’t wait for Sunday; today/tomorrow is the day to celebrate!

While strip malls are swarming with stressed shoppers scrambling to get to the bottom of their lists in time for the big gift switch, the truly monumental moment is happening tonight (or tomorrow, depending where you are). It’s winter solstice – go hug an evergreen!

Algonquin evergreen trees in sun and snow on a winter day

Sun Tree Winter Green

This midwinter festival goes back way more than 2012 years. It goes back into the cold dark pagan past. It goes back to the beginning of human consciousness, when the first naked apes looked up at the winter night sky waiting for a speedier return of the increasingly overdue sun.

With days getting colder and nights getting longer, these people – with no Weather Network, no electricity, no streetlamps (nor streets) – huddled together under precious animal skins and waited for the return of light and warmth.

Must have been a hell of a thing.

But they weren’t stupid; they’d lasted long enough to figure out that things would turn around, that snows would melt and new buds would blossom.

In time, ancient peoples such as Druids and Mayans constructed stone temples that took precise celestial measurements by which they pinpointed the date on which the longest night of the year past. And you know what they did then? They celebrated!

Merry Solstice to all of you, far and near, famous or forgotten, preachy or pagan, squished together or totally solitary – Merry Solstice to every one of you!

And for those of you in the southern hemisphere, enjoy your harvest. And don’t worry, your days won’t get shorter forever.

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