School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls’ Play (Round House Theatre-Bethesda): SEPT 18-OCT 20

Pretty, popular H.S. senior, Paulina (Kashayna Johnson), longs to become Miss Ghana 1988; she’ll do whatever it takes to win the crown. Suddenly, there is a new student at the Aburi Girls Boarding School, Ericka (Claire Saunders), who arrives from America w/ dresses from Macy’s and the latest beauty products. With humorous lines, deep insight, and timeless themes, Jocelyn Bioh’s award-winning comedy (sold out last year off-Broadway) reveals much about all of us, not just teenage girls.

The teen girls are the focus of the story. Paulina is the “queen bee” who takes charge of her peers, yet carries deep insecurities. Ama (Awa Sal Secka) is a very smart senior looking forward to college w/ a serious boyfriend. All the girls are part of a choir; some ’80s music is featured in the play. Cousins Mercy (Debra Crabbe) and Gifty (Moriamo Temidayo Akibu) provide moments of humor. Mercy’s father is a doctor, but very careful w/ money; the girls want new clothes and shoes. Nana (Jade Jones) is the girl w/ a heart of gold who (eventually) finds a way to stand up for herself. Her stepmother put her on a strict diet, disapproving of her weight.

The adults in the story are former classmates- Headmistress Francis (Theresa Cunningham)- a motherly, no-nonsense woman and self-serving, elegant Miss Ghana 1968- Eloise Amponsah (Shirine Babb, a theater veteran). The headmistress wears traditional clothes, incl. headwraps; Miss Amponsah wears high heels and Western skirt suits. Though all her girls are excited re: the beauty pageant, Headmistress Francis insists that education comes first. Only one girl will be chosen to represent this school- everyone is sure it will be Paulina.

Acceptance, standards of beauty, colorism (experienced outside Africa as well), and pains of growing up are the main themes of this play. It starts out like a broad comedy, then you get to know the girls, and realize just how layered their lives are (as we find in real life). This play is being put on by a team of all women- how rare! Also, Round House Bethesda was renovated recently (w/ a upper level of seats); check it out for yourself if in the DMV area. I went to see this play on one of the PWYC nights and really enjoyed it!

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Fairview (Woolly Mammoth Theatre): SEPT 9-OCT 6

Beverly insists the celebration for Grandma’s birthday be perfect. But her husband is useless, her sister is into the wine, and her daughter’s secrets are threatening to derail the day. Meanwhile, a group of spectators has put them all under surveillance. Soon the voyeurs launch an invasion on the festivities, forcing the family to battle for their very identities-Synopsis from Woolly web site

I didn’t know much re: this play (written by Pulitzer winner Jackie Sibblies Drury) when I went to see it (w/ my gal pal) on a recent Pay What You Can Night (PWYC) night. Two DC-based actors I’d seen several times before (Shannon Dorsey and Cody Nickell) were in the cast. Dorsey has been in recent Woolly productions; she’s a talented young lady under 30. Nickell is an experienced actor in his 40s; I’ve seen him perform before at The Folger (focused on Shakespeare).

Fairview is divided into 3 sections and runs w/o an intermission. In the first section, we see a domestic drama (w/ moments of humor) set in the home of an educated, upper-class black American family. The mom, Beverly (Nikki Crawford), is cooking dinner and worrying about making her mother’s 70th birthday special. The dad, Dayton (Samuel Ray Gates), is trying to help, yet also has time for joking around and being playful w/ his wife. He is relaxed and easygoing; they are still very much in love. The auntie, Beverly’s younger sister- Jasmine (Dorsey)- comes over w/ a bottle of wine and starts telling her sis to calm down. She starts to drink, complain, and stuff her mouth w/ cheese (which she was avoiding on a recent diet). The 17 y.o. daughter, Keisha (Chinna Palmer- a recent graduate of Howard), comes home after school and starts chatting w/ her aunt. Keisha is looking forward to college (she’s a good student, plays sports, and has several other extracurricular activities); she confides in Jasmine that she wants to take a year off. A call comes in from the uncle, a lawyer, whose flight will be late. This causes more anxiety for Beverly- a perfectionist- who still has veggies to cook and a cake to bake. They talk, laugh, and even dance around the house some. Suddenly, Beverly falls to the floor!

In the second part of the play, everything we just saw is acted over again, but w/o any dialogue (from the black family). Instead, we heard the (disembodied) voices of others observing this family. At first, I thought these were the voices of those who created this family drama story- producers, director, writers, etc. The most dominant voice is that of an arrogant white man, Jimbo (Nickell), who asks the others: “If you could be any race, which race would you choose? Why?” The first female voice is of Suze (Kimberly Gilbert), a white woman who is (from her commentary and tone) someone who considers herself to be “liberal” and “woke.” Another voice joins in, Mack (Christopher Dinolfo), declaring loudly and proudly that he wants to be Latino (or “Latinx”); he is a young gay man. The last voice is of Bets (Laura C. Harris) who is an immigrant from Russia w/ a strong accent; she has her own views (and points out that “everything in America is about race”). She would like to be a Slav (which is a different ethnicity, not race); this answer confuses the others. Jimbo wants to be black, as does Suze; she tells a story of how she was raised by a black nanny (who she loved). Yes, this play takes on The Help (written by Katherine Stockett), along w/ many other tales from pop culture (incl. The Cosby Show, Tyler Perry movies, various stereotypes- positive and negative- of black Americans).

In the third segment, the play really amps us, as the (white) voices we just heard insert themselves into the story of the black family! Jimbo takes on the role of the uncle, dressed like he belongs in a hip hop music video, and speaking as if straight from “the streets” (African American vernacular). This made the audience laugh and also cringe, recognizing the (blatant/persistent) ways black men are portrayed in media even today. Keisha goes upstairs to get her granny for dinner- Suze emerges wearing a classy white gown and turban-style headdress decorated with gold. She walks slowly down and joins the family at the table. Suze is appalled by the way Jimbo is talking, of course. Suddenly, there is a knock at the door; Mack (dressed in neon colors, wearing blonde fake braids) dances into the story. He is meant to be Keisha’s classmate- a girl– who is on the track team and her best friend. It was hinted before that Keisha may have feelings for this girl. Mack is so flamboyant that the audience cringed (yet had to laugh). This is an unique story! The black family and the observers sit down to eat, but tensions arise, and tempers get hot. Mack declares that Keisha is pregnant, pulling out a home pregnancy test. Keisha is shocked, as her friend was bringing over some homework. Beverly is stunned and disappointed. Suze tries to stay calm, saying she will accept what happens, and be supportive of her family.

Keisha knows something is wrong, but what exactly!? Bets pops out from behind a large family portrait, declaring herself to be the grandmother! She is dressed in a tight gold gown w/ matching turban; underneath, she is wearing an (obvious) fake butt. By this point, a few of the audience is still confused; others are howling w/ laughter (recognizing the ridiculous ways these white characters are trying to be part of the story which doesn’t belong to them). Suze and Bets get in a fight, as Suze objects to this version of the grandmother. Jimbo and Mack get into it also; they run about yelling and breaking apart the set (the family home). There is noise and mayhem for some moments. Keisha, as well as the audience, is trying to figure out what happened and how the story will end! Finally, Keisha confronts Suze- the white feminist/woke ally- and declares that she’s tired of being living under scrutiny (“the white gaze”).

Why are these white voices/characters turning this nice family story into a stereotype? This was one of my thoughts at the start of the third section. Then I realized that maybe the family was already a (positive) stereotype at the start of the play? Near the end, Keisha realizes that these white people have taken over her family, her story, and her future (as she imagined it)! Why can’t she (and other people of color) just tell their own stories, and white people (majority culture, esp. here in the US) give them some space? Why do we POC have to live our lives as if being watched (and judged) by whites? When is it our time to control the narrative? The play ends in an (unexpected) way; I haven’t seen anything like that before!

Tel Aviv on Fire (2018)

FYI: This film was released in 2018 in France, Israel, and parts of Europe. It is now in theaters here in the U.S. Have you ever been a fan of a soap opera? Would you like to see a (fresh/light) take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Is a certain level of camp (incl. melodrama) OK w/ you? Then this comedy (co-written/directed by Sameh Zoabi- a professor at NYU’s Tisch School of Arts) is worth a watch. It’s light and fluffy at first glance, but there is the weight of history, occupation, and everyday struggles underneath.

Salam (Kais Nashif- Palestinian-German actor seen in AmericanEast) is suddenly promoted to scriptwriter on a historically-based soap opera developed by his uncle Bassam (Nadim Sawalha- veteran British Jordanian actor/father of actress Julia Sawalha)- Tel Aviv on Fire. During a time of war in 1967, Manal (AKA Rachel) is a Palestinian spy trying to get secrets from the Israeli army. She is in a love triangle w/ two very different men- Marwan (a poetic Muslim freedom fighter) and Yehuda (a straight-laced Jewish general). Tala (Lubna Azabal from Rock the Casbah) is the lead- egotistical, glamorous, and very successful (based in France). She gives her opinions on the script, explaining that at her level, she won’t act if the dialogue is bad.

Salam (very anxious about his job) tries to find inspiration for his character- Yehuda. He is a former bartender and not gifted at writing, as Salam’s ex-girlfriend Mariam (a doctor) reminds him when they run into each other. One morning, Salam is pulled over at a checkpoint between Jerusalem (where the TV studio is located) and Ramallah (where he lives w/ his elderly mother). He meets Assi, an arrogant captain of the guard whose wife (along w/ many Israeli Jewish women) loves the show. Assi’s wife is sure that Rachel will end up w/ Marwan (her favorite character), not the boring Yehuda.

Assi (who is both funny and potentially dangerous) has opinions, incl, on how the season should end- a wedding between Rachel and Yehuda (his favorite character). Assi objects to the way Yehuda has been characterized so far- he doesn’t speak like a real military man. At first, Salam is bemused by these suggestions, then relies on Assi for dialogue. Salam also analyzes his failed relationship w/ Mariam, putting some of her words into scripts. Yehuda becomes a more authentic and sensitive character. Can a mere TV show unite two divided peoples (audiences)?

The Farewell (2019) starring Awkwafina

[1] This movie is very touching, and it is broader than just culture by itself. It also talks about individual identity and family responsibility, life and death, and the human experience.

[2] Lulu Wang has written an absolutely beautiful and personal film and has clearly poured her heart out into it. Her dialogue is funny, human, and poetic. 

[3] This story is absolutely deserving of an audience, and combines together through a beautiful lens a clashing of Western & Eastern philosophies of life that really should be examined.

[4] …one film that as you watch entertains you with thought, and fun laughs and has the drama of pain and emotion all wrapped up in one. It has themes of trust, love, and most of all secrets something that all families can relate to. 

-Excerpts from IMBD reviews

Writer/director Lulu Wang’s indie film centers on Billi (Awkwafina- a rapper/actress from Queens raised by her grandmother), a 31 year-old aspiring writer (also living in Queens, NY). She discovers that her Nai Nai (“grandma” in Mandarin) is dying of Stage 4 lung cancer. The extended family has decided not to reveal this to Nai Nai (which is common in China and perhaps a few other Asian cultures). Billi’s father, Haiyan (Tzi Ma- a prolific Chinese-American character actor) and his older brother construct a story: the family will say goodbye when they return to China for the wedding of Haibin’s son, Hao Hao and his Japanese bride, Aiko. For an Americanized, individualistic, and independent woman like Billi, this lie seems wrong.

Awkwafina does very well in her role; you almost forget that she started out in comedy. (FYI: She was cast in this role before her breakout roles in Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s 8.) Billi obviously loved her grandma; she calls Nai Nai daily just to talk from NYC. Several film critics have pointed out that the actress has the (rare) ability to do much while seeming to do little. Just notice her posture, sighs, and expressions. Her mother, Lu Jian (Diana Lin- a Chinese-Australian actress) warns Billi that she must participate in the lie. This is tough for Billi, who wears her emotions on her sleeve. Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao- a very popular actress in China) is a well-rounded character, full of life, jokes, and joy.

As a (Jewish) viewer of this film noted on IMDB, it follows in the tradition of Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet (1993) and Eat Drink Man Woman (1994). Though these three movies center on East Asians, they have universal themes and will appeal to diverse audiences. The parents (or older generations) get their share of screen time and are fully-fleshed out characters.

It was very difficult for Wang to get funding; after all, the film has an all Asian cast, is mostly subtitled, and she had only directed one feature film before. Even one of the potential Chinese investors said it’d be “more interesting” if she added a white guy (“real American”) character for Billi to bring home- WOW! After Wang appeared on NPR discussing her problem, an experienced producer (Chris Weitz) reached out to her. His credits incl. About a Boy (2002), The Golden Compass (2007), and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016).

Blinded by the Light (2019) directed by Gurinder Chadha

Gurinder Chadha (a British Asian Sikh journo turned filmmaker) made a big splash w/ the 2002 indie film, Bend it Like Beckham, starring Parminder Nagra (a theater actress who US audiences watched on ER) and a teen Keira Knightley (who became a worldwide success). At first, Chadha (now a mom of twins w/ her writing partner/husband Paul Mayeda Berges), felt that Blinded was too similar to her previous film. After Brexit happened, she was determined to tell the story (based on the life of a journo of Pakistani/Muslim heritage Sarfraz Manzoor). The movie was approved by Bruce Springsteen two years ago; after a private screening, The Boss told Chadha: “I love it. Don’t change a thing.”

Javed (Viveik Kalra) is a 16 y.o. living in ’80s Luton, England; it’s not a good time to be Pakistani, Muslim, or a dreamer who wants more than what’s planned by his parents. Margaret Thatcher is Prime Minister. The National Front (NF) supporters spray hateful graffiti on mosques and homes, including in Javed’s working-class neighborhood. Though he (secretly) wants to be a writer, his immigrant father- Malik (Kulvinder Ghir from Goodness Gracious Me)- wants him to be a doctor, engineer, or estate agent. Jobs are scarce in this town; money is tight in the family; the parents are anxious re: upcoming wedding of Javed’s older sister. Javed and his mom give their earnings to Malik; this was a surprise to many people in my screening.

Javed has been keeping journals for many years; he also writes songs for his best friend/neighbor Matt’s (Dean Charles Chapman from Game of Thrones) band. Things start to change between the long-time pals when Matt gets his first girlfriend and Javed goes into the sixth form (in preparation for university). Javed’s new English teacher, Ms. Clay (Hayley Atwell), sees potential in his work. She explains that he has an unique voice. Another British Asian kid in school, Roops (Aaron Phagura), introduces Javed to the music of Springsteen. Roops is based on the (real-life) best friend of Manzoor, who also co-wrote the screenplay. Javed falls in love w/ this American rock music (which was fading from popularity- FYI), feeling that Bruce is singing about his life!

Suddenly, Javed’s father is laid off from the factory job he’s had for 16 years. From the nightly news clips, we see that many people in factory/industrial towns are out of work. His mother, Noor (Meera Ganatra), has to take in more sewing to support the family; she works well into the night w/o complaint. Even Javed tries to go back to the bread factory where we worked the last summer, but there are no jobs. About half-way through the film, we get a (touching/sensitive) scene between Malik and Noor. I don’t think another filmmaker would have done it as well as Chadha. The parents would’ve remained more stereotypical, one-note, and unchanging. One critic esp. liked how they showed how much Malik cared for his fellow Pakistanis and mosque.

Javed’s younger sister, Shazia (Nikita Mehta), doesn’t understand why he’s so into Springsteen. We later learn that Shazia has a bit of a rebellious side also; she goes to “daytimers” (parties featuring bhangra music w/ fellow British Asian students). I had never heard of these events before- they look fun! Though this story is centered on a boy and his dad, it’s great to see a bit into a girl’s life.

One of the girl’s in Javed’s English class, Eliza (Nell Williams), is an activist who is impressed by his writing and personality. We eventually learn that she’s from a wealthy Tory (politically conservative) family. Her parents comment that Eliza dates boys who are “controversial” in the scene where Javed goes to their house. Aside from his obsession w/ Bruce, Javed is “a good, straight arrow kid” (as a film critic noted), so there isn’t much for her parents to worry about.

There is more to this (optimistic) story; you should check it out if it’s playing nearby. It doesn’t shy away from (in your face; period accurate) racism. FYI: People in my screening were shocked by a few scenes. A desi man in my audience commented after the film: “I grew up in Birmingham; it’s pretty accurate.” There is lot to like about this film, but it’s not perfect. The musical scenes may put some people off; a few viewers in my audience and critics considered them “cheesy” or “cringey.” They didn’t always fit well w/in the story; I was expecting them to be more naturalistic. FYI: 19 different Springsteen songs were featured through the film- WOW!