Thursday, 8 December 2011

The Ramayana: The Lotus flower of the East , Love a Mosque in New York

Produced by Thunder Bay S.O.U.L. (Social Organization for Unity & Love)
Directed by Bhaktimarga Swami
Article and Photos by Duncan Weller

Theatre! Living breathing human beings on stage! Whereas a movie is a product in a canister, infinitely reproducible and shown simultaneously the world over allowing the lead actor to sip his martini on a tawny beach in Cabo San Lucas, an audience for theatre is keenly aware that before them are live actors having to deal not only with portraying heroes, heroines, animals, gods, spirits, devils, and trees, but having to conquer stage fright and memorize their lines, movements, and dances in order to win the hearts of the audience. I believe many people avoid theatre because they empathize too much with the actors on stage – feel for them when they fall or flub their lines. No audience member likes to squirm in their seat because they’ve witnessed an actor’s shortcomings or the multifarious stage mishaps that can occur. This I think is a primary reason why support for theatre is more difficult to obtain. These human beings, these live actors, are too close to us. A film is safe. In a movie theatre we can say what we want, boo openly at the screen and laugh mockingly at the lack of verisimilitude. When live actors are before us and slip up, we wince because we feel the actor’s pain, or feel guilty for having laughed or thought ill of a person on stage who exists with us in the same room. In a theatre an audience has a natural empathetic desire to see people brave enough to expose themselves on stage succeed and excel without embarrassing themselves.

There are tip-offs that the production of Ramayana, held over a week ago, was not going to be a Stratford-like production. A) we are in Thunder Bay; B) the ticket cost for students was five dollars; C) the production was held in the Bora Laskin building, here on campus. However, and to illustrate a point I’m going to make, this production of Ramayana had so much heart and humour that for all its faults I couldn’t help but love it, and I can’t wait for the next production.

The upcoming Spring production is entitled, The Anishnawbe/ Native Seven Grandfathers. And if it is anything like Ramayana, it will fail only for audience members whose expectations is built on the belief that huge productions are supposed to be attempted only by seasoned professionals. Yes, the director’s reach outstrips his grasp, but with multiple attempts to attain something leaning towards enlightenment through theatre he may not get harmonic convergence, but he may delight an audience to rapture. What I saw in Ramayana was an enjoyment in the production by the actors on stage that was infectious. Some audience members were visibly uncomfortable where the play faltered, and I snorted a laugh here and there, but most of the time I felt what I was meant to feel. Many scenes were surprisingly affecting. Although we were entertained by a sudden intrusion of what felt like a public school play where child actors lifted their monkey masks to have a look at the audience and smile at their parents, there were also scenes of terror, pathos, beauty, and courage that bigger productions have a hard time pulling off. There is a terribly conflicting vision of a white man (a very white Cameron Willis) with his white belly and monkey-minstrel brown face playing Hanuman who battles a huge monster in a cloud produced by a fog machine. With dramatic light effects and fantastic music (albeit far too loud at times) the battle and dance sequences added action and speed to a play whose plot is a simple as a Disney film. The narrated voices gave a mythic feel to the play, but at times I wanted more voice from the actors themselves. The trees were amazing. Although a simple invention, they made the entire set move, and added character. The love interest between lead actors Nesan Tharmalingam as Ram and Shelly Phair as Sita was played coolly and deftly to be realistic rather than saccharine sweet. They were more believable as people in a mythic play. They were the straight characters in a sea of otherworldly events and creatures. The underworld rose up under the lead of Ravana, played by the commanding Vasi Thanapulu. The multitude of dancing creatures that backed him were wild and unkempt and fun to watch. The children were endearing as monkeys in a monkey army, but totally unbelievable in terms of the story. Adults playing the monkeys in more realistic or outlandish outfits would have lent the play more credibility and could have allowed for a battle scene of two armies, monkeys versus the underworld creatures!

Fantasy and imagination was of paramount importance in this play. The exotic, the otherworldly and the mystic was infused with pop culture pizzazz leaving me with great expectations for the next production. If you would like to get involved with future productions, S.O.U.L is actively seeking interested parties. Write to

Love a Mosque in New York
by Duncan Weller, 2008. Photo of Azarnoosh and I in North Vancouver. 

Last month commentator Mindelle Jacobs argued that the Islamic Cordoba House be allowed to exist in the shadow of the former twin towers only as an interfaith centre with a 9/11 memorial, but not solely as a mosque. Funnily enough, the Cordoba House was already destined to have an interfaith section and a memorial. Still, Jacobs had argued, its location would be in bad taste.
Jacobs tasteless commentary on Muslims inspired me to pull out my copy of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Iran,” where I began to reflect on my relationships with two groups of Muslims – Persians I knew and loved, primarily from Iran; a group of young men in Toronto, and a family dominated by women in North Vancouver.
I met my first group of Persians when I left Thunder Bay in the early nineties. Jafaar was a roommate of Lisa and Shawn’s – who I knew from Lakehead University. Jafaar barely spoke English, but picked it up after a few months with ESL courses and help from friends. He spoke and wrote Japanese fluently, having lived in Japan for four years. He taught me how to use chopsticks.
Jafaar was a refugee. In Iran he would have been tortured and jailed for distributing anti government pamphlets. He took part in student protests and saw many of his classmates gunned down by government security. In one protest he survived by jumping behind a steel pole in the street when the shooting began. He tells a fascinating story of how he survived the Iran/Iraq war. He happened to be in a shoe store when the owner told him that a special truck was coming to the local square to pick up conscripts. Service was mandatory, so, taking the advice, he ran home to say goodbye to his parents, and ran to the square, which was filled with Mercedes Benzes and Rolls Royces. The truck took the wealthy sons of the community to Tehran where they would be kept from fighting on the front lines. Jafaar spent the war working mostly as a bartender and waiter to officers in Tehran.
Jafaar’s Iranian friends in Toronto also fought in the war. Feradun told only humourous stories, while Saied sadly recounted throwing limbless bodies onto the back of a flatbed truck. Hassan just shook his head and refused to talk about his experiences. Jafaar got drunk one night at a party. In mid-laughter he dramatically burst into continual sobbing. When he began to scream I had to hold him and reassure him that he was safe. He was overcome with memories of friends he’d lost and the violence he saw during the war and during student protests.
Jafaar’s humour and smile were infectious. He was incredibly thoughtful and felt he should study philosophy. He ended up graduating from a Medical Information Technology program. He quickly made friends, and other Iranians were drawn to him. Hassan became my roommate and was the most religious of any Iranian I knew. He prayed quietly in his room and was such a great cook his friends would find excuses to drop in around mealtime. Hassan was one of the most generous and gentle men I’ve ever met.
After a trip to Victoria, my Iranian friends took my advice and we all moved from Toronto to Victoria. In Victoria they quickly made new friends, obtained girlfriends of different races and happily settled.
When I moved to North Vancouver I met Azarnoosh. She was a cashier at Future Shop (the entire chain was owned by an Iranian). At that time Azarnoosh had been in Canada only three months. She spoke Farsi, Russian, Arabic, and broken English. Her English improved at an amazing pace. After a few dates she introduced me to her relatives who lived in Woodcroft, an area of five apartment towers arranged in a semi-circle cordoned off by incredible trees. The Iranians jokingly referred to Woodcroft as “mini-Tehran”, as the occupants were 75% Iranian.
Power brokers of the family were women. Most of the Iranian women I met were headstrong and determined to get an education, a job and/or husband – of Iranian or Canadian descent. Many had graduated in Iran with science or medical degrees. At parties the women cooked traditional foods while wearing dresses and high heels. Some men wore ties. I had to ditch my frumpy hick clothes so as not to stand out. I learned how to pronounce the “hei” sound in order to say Kheili Khoshmazeh (very delicious) in Farsi. I fell in love with saffron. They introduced me to Pablo Neruda, the benefits of boiling meat, jumping fires on a beach, Persian dance, manners and dress, and a kind of affable honestly familiar to Americans. “You’re fat!” my good friend and neighbour Arezoo announce dramatically one day, concerned about my health.
I also got to know that Iranian culture is a mixture of many others, Russian, Asian, Jewish, and American. Every fad to hit North America quickly made it to Iran, although they were restricted to celebrating popular culture indoors. They were break dancing when we were break dancing. Some put ketchup on everything.
I saw Googoosh in concert in Vancouver. Googoosh hadn’t performed in thirty years and voluntarily stayed in Iran where many other artists and performers were murdered during the 1979 revolution. The concert, held in a huge hockey rink, was packed with the most beautiful and well-dressed men and women I’d ever seen. During the performance, the woman sitting next to me cried at the opening of every song.
And lately, the air – news static – is filled with worry of an encroaching otherworldly culture that we are encouraged to think might just be out to get us. Here comes the Islamist Jihad. Just this week, I rented a DVD for the TV series The West Wing. The first episode of the third season illustrated the difference between Islam and Jihad. The apt statement was made: “Jihad is to Islam as the KKK is to Christianity.” And the next day I read that Christian and Catholic evangelists are currently inciting the murder of tens of thousands of Africans. These evangelists are pushing African governments to rid their countries of homosexuals. So, should we condemn the building of churches here in Canada in protest? Or target these nut-jobs directly?
Proximity of abuse becomes irrelevant to blame when the crimes committed are related only by name and not actions and certainly not by actions of a much larger group who are peaceful. The jihadists, right-wing evangelists, orthodox Jews, etc. are not the same people who peacefully practice their religion in our country, their country, or who work hard with NGOs to save children and families around the world. There will always be extremist right wing/left wing radicals who would love to have us think they have widespread affiliations, when they are shunned or outright disowned by the very groups to whom they claim affiliation. They are the dividers, the levelers.

We don’t have to buy into their hatred. The best display against the Jihadists would be to allow the building of a mosque right next to the very spot where the radicals intended to make a statement. The statement we can make is: We are better than you. And it would be the Christian thing to do. It would be the secular thing to do. It’s what Benjamin Franklin would do. “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

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