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What's in a name? - A Hyphen

Living on the Hyphen

The inevitable navigation to Janet O’Shea’s book titled ‘At Home in the World’ seems unending as I sit in the first row of Rollins Theatre watching a profusely intense, deliberately satiric dance theatre production echoing the complexities of global living! That an eminently communicative audio-visual medium was chosen to resound muted realities of immigrant lives in the U.S called for a superlative effort on the part of Lucky Chaos Theater and Productions and Austin Dance India. And thus as each character silted their affluent artistic sensibilities with uncluttered expressions of personal experience, it was for a very willing audience to untie syntaxes, metaphors and similes in order to assimilate how much of a matter it is to have a hyphen in a name (Asian-American, Spanish-American? Or African-American).

The play subsumes around its protagonist leaving ‘home’ for the world, only to get lost in it, panicked at what all it has to offer, forced to question if ever there was a true home and finally conceding to ‘live’ in the home and with the hyphen. Circumscribed into this are humorous short tales of several beings like her, coping up, though ambiguously to what they call discrimination (in the play) in ways of their own.

So there is the dyslexic Indian daughter of an artist (dancer) mother studying communications in the U.S, direly wanting to be heard and interpreted differently – expression through movement being her niche. Instead she is swirled into an absolutely technical, automated and anti-personalized study system, where her weakness gets pronounced. As the mother daughter duo yearn for art friendly education, a more mundane cultural shock comes their way when the self-obsessed, pluralistic, yippy flock of Americans freeze to the ‘Indianness’ of an Indian! Purna Bajekal did a smooth sail through a very controlled movement-dialogue performance, while choreographer Anuradha Naimpally brought out the best of all the four types abhinaya (especially the scared walk resulting from the stares that she gets) and Jesus Valles, who played the linking thread, exhilarated his expertise as a story-teller with some highly charged dialogues like ‘Imagine when you have your teeth stuck to a wall and your body suspended only through its grip: That is how hyphenated our lives are!’ and a thorough emotional performance.

While I was not in outright agreement to the treatment of ‘racism’ in the play (might be justified because of the relatively less time I have spent in the country), my thoughts found buttressed when the American identity found its critique very subtly portrayed by an American himself! Now that takes an open mind to accept a reality and have a dialogue with it too! The ‘Slipper/shoe’ act was simply hilarious! Scenes showing a paranoid American plagued with petty issues like outside shoes, home shoes and patio shoes, his idea of relaxation through a ‘structured’ sipping tea routine, conception of cooking being just ‘adding’ frozen, bottled ingredients and his reaction to the loud over reacting ‘Asians’, succeeded in exposing the right compass on which the ‘hyphenated’ existence was cribbed about! Jay Byrd was a treat, especially in sequences indulging in self-fun, where he voices for the need to have a hyphen in his American name too, for he was just a white man – where things come on a platter, a sliver spoon, credit card, job and a girl in his arm (well, not in his case though). Soumya Ashok perfectly scraped every Indian woman’s emotions in the way she spelled the ‘imaginary’ fight with her husband and claimed to have answers for every problem.

Director Leng Wong
The play’s austere message was in lamenting how the west was consumed in flaunting the best external image, without any aliveness to grooming and nurturing the soul! Planted around her real life story of supporting her sisters in this ‘land of opportunity’, JooHee Ahn role-played her character of utmost easily flipping the purse named ‘Hyphen’ (symbolizing the hyphenated identity, which was heavy a burden to carry ), where the rest of the characters were absurdly shown sweating out to lift it! That her cheerful appearance and positive attitude were granted for a happy life, was in fact the toughest thing she battled every day and this truly stuck an instant chord.

Another character that weaved all through alongside the protagonist was the metaphorical ‘Dragon’ a representative of the Chinese dragon dance. The director-protagonist Leng Wong made the most flawless traverse for the allegory of the dragon, which in the Chinese dance was used to ward off the evil but here was a personification of ‘fear’, the constant underlying fear of being ‘African-American’. And thus the dragon consistently converses with the lost Asian-American through the play to finally convince that it is the fear that makes up to the fight and the fight finally leads to live, to live is to hyphen! Jeffery Da’Shade Johnson being the filmmaker, brought about the definitive ‘filmy’ tearful ending along with the talented sole child actor of the play ZhaneD. Hall.

Credit her to her acting or her direction, Leng Wong deserves highest appreciation to bring feelings and experiences as personal, as sensitive and as controversial as these in such deep yet humorous way and stitched together in such brilliant fashion. The props (multiple layered podium, the moving scenic backgrounds, the paintings, the multimedia production et al) and the highly seasoned music ensemble with some complex rhythmic sequences in the flute, sitar, bass and doumbek never once felt like a forced inclusion or out of tune!

Spare a thought for the dragoners (balancing the dragon) though masked throughout worked through space and time in perfect synchrony!
‘Living on the hyphen’ is a must watch for all of us, for it mirrors every human at some point in life and The Kalaparva urges its readers to try help this group in such diligent pursuit! Gratitude immensely to Anuradha Naimpally who made this opportunity possible to give me my first professional media representation in Austin!