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!

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!

Always Be My Maybe (2019) starring Ali Wong, Randall Park, Keanu Reeves, & Daniel Dae Kim

Real-life pals, Ali Wong (check out her Netflix comedy specials: Baby Cobra and Hard Knock Wife) and Randall Park (Fresh off the Boat) wanted to make a modern-day, Asian-American version of When Harry Met Sally, the iconic 1989 rom com that paired a sweet funnyman (Billy Crystal) w/ a beautiful, yet also eccentric, girl-next-door (Meg Ryan). Wong (who is a 37 y.o. actress/writer of Chinese and Vietnamese heritage) plays ambitious celeb chef, Sasha Tran, who is on the verge of opening more restaurants, incl. in NYC, LA, and her hometown (San Francisco). She is engaged to Brandon Choi (Daniel Dae Kim from Lost), a very handsome, successful, and somewhat older real estate developer. Before they settle down, Brandon wants to travel the world for a year and live like a single man (much to Sasha’s dismay). Her assistant/best friend, Veronica (comedian Michelle Buteau), says this is crazy, but Sasha agrees to Brandon’s terms.

A few months before the San Fran restaurant is set to open, Sasha and Veronica fly to the city and set up shop (and a very nice house for Sasha). Without telling Sasha, Veronica hires Kim & Son to set up the A/C system; when they arrive, Sasha is shocked and Marcus Kim (Park) acts very awkward. Mr. Kim (veteran character actor Jamies Saito) is happy to see Veronica and Sasha; they haven’t been around since high school. It turns out that Sasha’s immigrant family lived next door to the Kims (who are second gen Korean-American) and she and Marcus were best friends all through their childhood! Mr. Kim always thought they would end up together.

There is no one way to be Asian, but you would’t know that from consuming mainstream TV shows, movies, or most media. Here we have two individuals coming from unique families: the Wongs (who speak w/ accents) worked long hours at their store to save for their future and Sasha (though she resented it); meanwhile, the Kims (who have no accents) welcomed Sasha into their home after-school and she developed her interest in cooking from Marcus’ mom, Judy (Susan Park). There are certain touches that add texture to what could’ve been a typical rom com story: kids removing their shoes when entering a home; cooking traditional dishes at home; Asians of various backgrounds as neighbors, friends and romantic partners; a New Age type of Asian woman who works w/ at-risk youth; Asians rapping about their unique experiences, and (perhaps most striking) an Asian male as a romantic lead. Oh, and fans of Keanu Reeves are in for a treat, as are his haters. This is must-see, b/c I feel that different viewers will relate to it on different levels! I recommend it to foodies, immigrants (or those who are second gen in US), rom com fans, and even those who avoid the rom com genre. My favorite thing about Always Be My Maybe was the fact that this was a love rooted in friendship (which is one of the reasons that When Harry Met Sally was so popular).

JxJ Film Festival: Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles

The origin story behind one of Broadway’s most beloved musicals, Fiddler on The Roof, and its creative roots in early 1960s New York, when “tradition” was on the wane as gender roles, sexuality, race relations and religion were evolving. -IMDB synopsis

In the early 20th century, Jews and Orthodox Christians live in the little village of Anatevka in the pre-revolutionary Russia (when Czars ruled). The poor milkman Reb Tevye has been married for 25 yrs to Golde and they have five daughters . When the local matchmaker, Yente, arranges the match between his eldest daughter Tzeitel and the old widowed butcher Lazar Wolf, Tevye agrees to the wedding. However, Tzeitel is in love with the poor tailor Motel Kamzoil; they “gave each other a pledge” to someday get married. After seeing the couple so happy, Tevye begins to rethink some of the traditions he assumed would continue…

This was my favorite film (of the six that I saw) of this year’s festival; it’s a funny, educational, and touching doc (featuring Hamilton creator Lin Manuel Miranda, veteran actor Austin Pendelton, cultural critic Fran Lebowitz, and many others influenced by the beloved and timeless musical). The theater was full (or nearly full) during the two showings. Did you know that several of the team who came up with the lyrics, music, dances, etc. are still alive?

We get to hear from theater greats like Harold Prince (producer), Sheldon Harnick (songwriter), and Calvin Trillin (writer). Several discuss the innovation, as well as the emotional/verbal abuse, of Jerome Robbins (the very talented choreographer). Robbins was a “conflicted Jew” and controversial figure because he revealed names to the HUAC. It turns out that he was a closeted gay man seeking to protect his privacy.

A youthful Norman Jewison (who directed the very popular 1971 movie) is seen directing a scene featuring Tevye (Chaim Topol, an actor from Israel who worked mainly on the London stage). Did you know that Jewison (who worked on many socially-conscious films) isn’t Jewish? Though Tevye is the center of the story, dreaming of being a rich man, talking to God, and trying to be the breadwinner, his three (independent-minded) daughters propel the story forward.

Stage/film actresses from different generations talk re: portraying Tevye’s practical wife (Golda), eldest daughter (Tzeitel), witty middle daughter (Hodel), and the gentle/shy one (Chava). Each daughter has (what we call these days) a love marriage. It was shocking to the family when Chava ran off to marry a Russian (not Jewish) boy; this action had more serious consequences in that time period and community.

The (timeless) themes of Fiddler on the Roof have made the play popular worldwide; we get to see clips from a professional performance in Japan and one from school kids in Brooklyn and Thailand. Non-Jewish creative types, including Gurinder Chada (best known for the British indie hit Bend it Like Beckham), talk about how the tale has influenced their works. Miranda even used the song “To Life” in his wedding reception; he, his father-in-law, and members of the wedding party surprised his wife! The doc wraps up w/ how the plight of (modern) refugees is not unlike Tevye’s family.

Quick Reviews of Recent Views (FEB 2019)

A Star is Born (2018)

There is something missing in this movie, BUT I don’t know what! It could’ve been 15-20 mins shorter. It’s (mostly) predictable, BUT has some nice dialogue and scenes; I esp. liked the first 3rd of it. Lady Gaga did a good job in her movie debut; she has acted before on TV (FYI). Bradley Cooper’s tan makes him look a BIT older and worn out, BUT he’s still got that engaging smile and blue eyes. I was impressed by how well he played the guitar and sang (much better than debacles made by Gerard Butler in Phantom and Russell Crow in Les Mis). I learned that he had help from Willie Nelson’s son (a back-up guitarist in the film). The meet cute scene is quite well done; Jack is impressed w/ Ally’s voice. The parking lot scene was also good; they open up to each other as friends first. And yes, Gaga and Cooper have an easy chemistry (as many others have pointed out)! It’s easy to feel empathy for Ally as she goes from struggling unknown singer/songwriter to Grammy-winning pop star. I loved all the scenes w/ Sam Elliott; I wanted to see a BIT more of him (though the Oscar nom was well-deserved). Unlike the older versions (I’ve seen them all, aside from the Streisand/Kristofferson film), the man gets a FEW more scenes and is more sympathetic. Cooper does a good job for a newbie director.

Cold War (2018)

I don’t understand the love for this Polish film (which got an Oscar nom); it was playing recently at AFI (across the street). The B&W photography is very nice to look at, BUT Roma does it better. The main song which is woven through the story is lovely, and a BIT haunting. There is NOT enough characterization of the leads (an older male composer and a younger female singer). Sorry, that’s a deal-breaker for me (as my regular readers can guess)! Why are these people even in love!? The 88 mins. seems much longer- a bad sign also.

Everybody Knows (2018)

This is a Spanish language film (released earlier this month in the US) which stars Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem, BUT was written/directed by Iranian Asghar Farhadi (who won an Oscar previously). Some of you may have seen A Separation or The Salesman, two of his critically-acclaimed films; this movie was actually shot before The Salesman. The scenery is gorgeous, the tone shifts (from joyous to tense), and each supporting character gets their own moment to shine. Cruz and Bardem are married; they have great chemistry together! Even w/ no makeup and mussed up clothes, they look great, and project charisma and star power (BUT in a toned down way). The acting is in the eyes mainly. Even w/ the mystery at the center, you’ll find things common from Farhadi’s other works: extended families, long-held secrets, money pressures, and class issues. My two gal pals and I really liked it!