Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
No woman wants to be a “woman artist.” If you are a woman and an artist, you want to be judged on your work. Period. As Georgia O’Keefe said, “The men liked to put me down as the best woman painter. I think I’m one of the best painters.”
Gender qualification in the art world carries the stink of second-class value or exception-to-the-rule accomplishment. We shouldn’t need to gender qualify “women artists” but, of course, we do and MoMA’s revelatory new exhibit, “Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction,” on view through August 13th, proves why.
Drawing exclusively from the museum’s archives, curators Starr Figura and Sara Meister, assisted by Hillary Reder, have put together a show of art by women created in that slippery pocket of time between the end of World War II and the emergence late-60s, second-wave feminism. Networks of support for women artists had yet to coalesce, and entrenched thinking in the art world was dismissive of women artists. While some women achieved exception-to-the-rule status, among them familiar names like Lee Krassner, Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell, and Elaine De Kooning, all brilliant and all either lovers, disciples, or wives of the period’s male art stars, those outside the “macho mystique” orbit had little choice but to forge their own paths, make their own space.
With nearly 100 works presented by 50-plus women artists – some recent acquisitions to collection, others pulled from storage to be displayed on MoMA’s walls for the first time – “Making Space” reroutes the exclusivity of the white-men only narrative of modern abstraction with work by women that collectively amplifies the gender and geographic bandwidth of abstraction in late-20th art in profound ways.
Grace Hartigan, Shinnecock Canal, 1957
Opening the exhibit with a work by Grace Hartigan, an Abstract Expressionist from the New York School, positions us with a familiar reference point. Her Shinnecock Canal (1957) is a powerhouse painting, where brushstrokes collide with such combustible energy the canvas feels ready to burst. And that is what “Making Space” does. It bursts with thrilling work that spans nearly 30 years and multiple evolutions of abstraction. By the end of “Making Space,” LIFE Magazine’s 1958 accolade of Hartigan as one of the “most celebrated of the young American Women painters” feels even more onerous in its exception-to-the rule implications.
(Ironically, Grace Hartigan’s “Shinnecock Canal,” originally featured as the opening painting for “Making Space,” was removed to make space for an exhibition on architects, despite the fact that “Making Space” runs through August 13th.)
Walking through the galleries, I was overcome with a vicarious, albeit bittersweet sense of vindication. My mother, Joan Sommers, a 1948 graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, like many of the women in this show, spent a lifetime fighting to assert her primary identity as an artist in a world that worked hard to subordinate that identity to her roles as wife and mother. In the mid-50s, one reviewer wrote of her, “For most wives and mothers, the multiple duties and responsibilities of rearing children present challenge enough. But not so for painter Joan Sommers…” No wonder my mother abhorred interviews.
MoMA’s exhibit illuminates what the curators call “the stunning achievements” of these artists, but read between the lines and the stories of how these women willed their art into existence emerge. Their art lives independently but, given the gender prejudice, their stories matter too and are inextricably linked to the passions that drove them.
Joan Mitchell, Ladybug, 1957
It was wonderful to take in Mitchell’s Ladybug (1957), but even more exciting to discover, directly across from Ladybug, Janet Sobel’s little-known gem, Untitled, (1946). In this small but stunning work, Sobel is the first to experiment with drip painting. A self-taught artist and mother of five, who passed through Ellis Island from the Ukraine in 1908, it should be noted that Pollock, the epitome of Abstract Expressionism’s heroic male art star, discovered his signature innovation through her work.
Nearby is a piece by Alma Woodsey Thomas, an African American junior high art school teacher from Washington, DC whose retirement in 1960, at the age of 68, unleashed an outpouring of creativity. Working out of her kitchen, she created her most important work. In Untitled, (1968), strips of paper, filled with multiple splashes of color, build into columns and, at a distance, the work hints of flowers cascading down a wall. Get closer and you’ll discover the meticulous application of paint obliterates any reality-based reference.What remains is a sublime distillation of color. Michelle Obama had the vision to hang Thomas’s work in the White House.
Alma Woodsey Thomas, Untitled, 1968
The extensive inclusion of Latin American women signals the exhibits’ international scope. Most of these artists are unfamiliar. A series of recently acquired of photographs (1952) by Brazilian artist Gertrudes Altschul, alluring in their organic sensibility, turn shape, light and shadow into sensual abstractions. Uruguayan painter and sculptor Maria Freire, a leading figure in her country’s art concrete movement, is represented by Untitled (1954), a flat work, devoid of the emotionalism of the New York School but strangely soothing to contemplate. A major work by Brazilian artist Lygia Pape, Orange (1955), on view for the first time at MoMA, is yet another revelation. As the exhibit notes explain, women in South America, especially Brazil, had an easier time of it. Why that was so is not exactly clear.
Gertrudes Altschub, Untitled, photograph, c. 1952
Agnes Martin and Ann Truitt are but two of the talents that anchor the minimalist gallery, or as the curators call it reductive abstractionism. Faint influences from the east shadow their work. Truitt’s Sumi drawings, created in Japan in 1966, pit the austerity of vertical stripes against the softness of Sumi-e ink, resulting in a yin-yang effect of cold and warmth, while Martin’s The Tree (1964), with its painstakingly contoured grid, unifies, as you step back, into a transcendent oneness.
Other works to pay special attention to are Bridget Riley’s Current (1964); its synthetic polymer painted lines magically ripple across the canvas in real time. And Yayoi Kusuma’s two works, Infinity Nets (1951) and No. F (1959), along with Jo Baer’s Primary Light Group: Red, Blue, Green (1964-65), make irrefutable the case that women were key players in the divergence from gestural abstraction to minimalism.
Ruth Asawa, Untitled, 1955
By the mid-sixties, a conscious feminist intent to elevate marginalized women’s disciplines, like weaving and crafting, took hold and yarn and wire became materials of choice. Among the works to look for are Shelia Hicks Prayer Rug (1965), Magdalena Abakanowicz’s hefty Yellow Abakan (1967-68), and Ruth Asawa’s hanging wire sculpture Untitled (1955). Of course, Anni Albers, Lygia Pape and Yayoi Kusuma had been creating textiles since the forties and fifties and those presented in the exhibit are stunning.
I left the exhibit with mixed emotions. Exhilarated by the work, amazed at the paths these women travelled, and deflated that 40-years after the rise of second-wave feminism, shows like this are still necessary. Of course, I applaud MoMA’s efforts to rethink the deficiencies in their representation of women artists but am impatient with the pace. As with so many narratives of inequality, the reality, especially when it comes to women, is that turning the corner is a process that never ends.
Anne Ryan, Collage 585, 1949
There were two artists I couldn’t stop thinking about. One was Anne Ryan. For me, she was the standout discovery. So was her story. Born in 1889 in New Jersey, she was a printmaker/poet and first-generation Abstract Expressionist. In 1948, at the age of 57, she came across Kurt Schwitters’ collage work and saw the potential to visualize her poetry through this new medium. For the last six years of her life, she focused exclusively on collage, producing around 400 pieces with magnificent effect. Mastering a new medium at that stage in her career is reminiscent of Matisse conjuring cutouts during his final years.
The other artist I couldn’t stop thinking about was my mother, Joan Sommers. Like so many of the women in “Making Space,” she forged her own artistic path, but did so by taking a dramatically different turn. A classmate of Joan Mitchell, my mother was a full scholarship student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, graduating a year after Mitchell. Although friends, they were not close. Both mid-western girls, they shared a talent for ice-skating. Mitchell won the Midwest Junior Pairs Championship; my mother toured professionally with Shipstead & Johnson’s Ice Follies. They both embraced Abstract Expressionism. But that’s where the similarities ended. Mitchell was a Chicago debutante and steel-heiress with a combative personality, well suited for New York. My mother, the daughter of a machine engineer in Duluth, was averse to confrontation but her graceful countenance masked steely resolve.
First row, far right: Joan Sommers, Art Institute of Chicago, 1947
For most of the 50s, she remained in the Midwest, balancing her art with marriage and motherhood. However, both my parents bristled under the constraints of suburban life. My father, a poet and town manager, sought a bigger stage. My mother, straightjacketed by the conformity of American domesticity, longed to escape. When, in the early 60s, an opportunity arose for them to move to Southeast Asia, they jumped at the chance and never looked back.
Joan Sommers, Untitled, oil on canvas,1954
For someone who had never been abroad before, the move to Thailand was simultaneously a journey into the unknown and, unexpectedly, the start of a harmonizing of her artistic identity. The eastern aesthetic held deep resonance for her and offered a kind of artistic rebirth. She traveled extensively – Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Taiwan, Indonesia, and eventually China – but it was her encounter with Chinese calligraphy and painting that redefined her evolution as an artist. Through Bangkok’s Chinese community, she found a revered master willing to teach her the ancient techniques of calligraphy, and so began a life-long practice.
In retrospect, her embrace of calligraphy seems destined. Whether carving the ice of frozen Duluth lakes with her skates or letting her “chi” flow from hand to brush, her innate sense of line was intrinsic to her physical being. And in Chinese calligraphy’s abstract quality and gestural capacity, she saw possibilities for innovation that would move her beyond the conventions of western abstraction. Her experimentation resulted in black ink paintings that balanced ideas of western abstraction with the spontaneity and controlled brushwork at the heart of Chinese calligraphy.
Joan Sommers, Cat’s Cradle, ink on rice paper with undercoat, c. 1990s
As she remarked years later, “It is that tension between East and West that has been my inspiration; the desire to blend and balance ideas of contrast and similarity, continuity and disruption.” Overtime, she applied these ideas to black ink, collage, landscapes, oil, and even the hot-wax techniques of batik.
Joan Sommers, Indonesian Night, hot wax batik technique, 1976
As an adult, I spent hours with her in her studio, watching her work and dissecting her process. By nature, she was not a particularly verbal person, but I pushed and over time our discussions went deep. A bond formed between us, one that transcended the vicissitudes of our mother-daughter relationship. I like to think that our friendship during those later years took the edge off her feelings of isolation. She was fully confident in her vision, extremely self-critical and experimented endlessly. Having grown up in Asia myself, her trajectory felt natural to me. But discussing her art with others was exhausting, filled as it was with unexpected twists and turns.
Joan Sommers, Bamboo with Enso, ink on rice paper and collage, c. 1990s
A gifted ice skater, she quit the Ice Follies in favor of art school. A fervent Abstract Expressionist, she turned her back on New York in favor of the East. A graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago, she thrived most while studying at the China National Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou, China. Her identity as an artist was paramount but she was the mother of six and her marriage a love story that lasted a lifetime. She worked simultaneously in multiple mediums but Chinese calligraphy was her sustenance, her daily practice. Hers was a contradictory narrative, with so many moving parts, that explaining it to others left me at a loss. Predictably, my mother had no interest in explaining anything to anyone.
Joan Sommers, Sudden Landscape, ink on rice paper, 2002
In December 2013, a mere three weeks after she passed away on Thanksgiving Day, a show opened at the Metropolitan Museum in New York that struck me like a lightning bolt. “Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China,” was a landmark exhibit by contemporary Chinese artists who used their artistic heritage to create contemporary, non-western, global art. Lingering in the galleries, I could feel my mother’s ideas echo throughout the exhibit. And my jaw dropped when I saw work by two of the show’s major artists: Wang Dongling and Wenda Gu. These were her friends. Artists she had painted alongside and shared ideas with, artists she had learned from and bonded with. How often and passionately she had spoken to me about their work. Before that moment, their names were just that, names, lodged in my memory with no visual reference, no larger context. Now, here they were, the full glory of their work on display in a show that was one of the most exciting art experiences of my life. Finally, I had a context for my mother’s work and journey as an artist.
Second from left: Wang Dongling, Joan Sommers, and William Sommers
Later, I learned from my father that before my mother passed away, they made a final trip to Hangzhou and paid a surprise visit to Wang Dongling, universally revered as China’s greatest living calligrapher and an art star on the contemporary global stage. His joy upon seeing my mother was immediate and a feast was quickly arranged. Their last photograph together is one I treasure and symbolizes the wholeness of her journey. My mother, the ultimate outsider, had been welcomed back to Hangzhou as an insider and shown respect by an artist who mattered most to her.
Photos of Joan Sommers and images of Joan Sommers’ work courtesy of Daria Sommers; All other images courtesy of Museum of Modern Art.
Sulayman Al Bassam’s Petrol Station, which will have its world premier at the Kennedy Center this Friday (followed by performances Saturday and Sunday only), is an extraordinary new play that arrives at our nation’s capitol with such uncanny timing it will make your head spin. The work is feverishly in-tune with both the unhinged state of our political life and the chaos that rages throughout much of the Middle East.
A Kuwaiti playwright, celebrated for his fearless explorations of political and religious issues roiling the pan-Arab world, Al Bassam’s choice to cast only American actors in a story set in the no-man’s land of an unnamed Arabian Gulf state will reverberate with the viewer long after the play is over in profound, unexpected ways.
The story unfolds at a desert petrol station where two half-brothers – the Cashier (a country national) and the Trafficker (a dual national) – compete for control of a gas pump whose meter is lost, while their indentured servant (read slave) Joseph, carrier of family secrets, serves seemingly at their command. Their aging father, aware that fuel is being illegally siphoned off to militias fighting in a nearby country’s civil war, commands his sons to find the missing meter in the belief that it will reinstate order at the station and possibly liberate them and their country from the stranglehold of oppression.
The Meter has been lost and in its place,
comes abuse and fear that tatters sleep.
Evil has taken root in this Station;
corruption, like cancer, has seized its bones.
…find the Meter, the bell of truth will toll.
And so the search begins. The meter must be found. The Manager, a Bedoon (stateless Arab and bastard son), directs his migrant workers Bayu and Khan (Al Bassam’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern), to dig. Into this charged oasis, come two refugees, a brother and sister, fleeing the neighboring civil war.
As the Trafficker and Cashier’s war-profiteering collides with the refugees’ psychic trauma and desperate dreams, the specific geography of the petrol station disappears, allowing the space, as well as the actors’ performances, to become global stand-ins for any place tyranny rules and makes humanity expendable.
The playwright signals this global resonance by layering his actors with a mix of accents – African, Latino, Arab, Texan – and featuring, in his all American cast, actors that define America’s diversity and our own citizens’ personal connection to the contemporary global stage.
Although the play, like the world right now, is certainly bleak, Al Bassam understands where hope and change will come from and doesn’t shy away from it. The refugee Girl wraps her every word in fight and spite, summoning her own resistance:
…I’m not lining up to join the ranks of the dispossessed.
I’ve a people that need me, a country on the slaughter rack,
seized in the pains of a terrible becoming…
Out of this bloodshed, out of this suffering
a child is being born;
…I’ve pledged my life to this unborn child
and vowed to teach it all I know and
all I love and all I wish for. That is my alphabet.
For anyone who feels their outrage weakening as the deluge of “Trumpian” disturbances continues with no end in sight, Petrol Station offers the best kind of reprieve. Art, in this case political theater, can be clarifying for the soul in times like these, and Petrol Station does just that.
Petrol Station will be performed in the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater on March 24 and 25 at 8:00 p.m. with a 2:00 p.m. matinee on March 26. A post-performance discussion will be offered following the March 24 performance.
For more information please visit the Kennedy Center website, in-person at the Kennedy Center box office, or call (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324.
In the days immediately following November’s shock election, pundits across the media landscape, responding to a rising chorus of “Not My President,” admonished Americans to give Trump a chance. We need Trump to succeed, they said, because we need our country to succeed. The political class was asking those of us who felt his hate, his race-baiting and his demeaning of human dignity to give him, our abuser-elect, a chance. As protests snowballed across the country, John Legend perfectly articulated why so many of us had no choice but to react.
“We hear him [Trump] questioning the citizenship of the first black president and we hear him calling Mexican rapists and murderers that are coming into the country and he is saying he wants to ban Muslims from the country. We hear all that and we can’t get past that.”
The Irondale Ensemble, a 34-year old theater organization in the heart of Brooklyn’s Fort Greene, isn’t getting past it either and in a heroic effort to continue the fight against “normalization,” they have, for the month of March, suspended their normal programming and are presenting instead a curated series of short plays, readings, films and discussion called NOT NORMAL: Art In Resistance In The Time Of Trump.
“It grew out of all the marches, demonstrations and pop-up protests that have occurred since Trump’s inauguration, beginning of course with the Women’s March,” says Jim Niesen, Artistic Director of the Irondale Ensemble. “There’s a fear expressed that the outrage may be fading and we need to be reminded not to let up.”
With this starting point, the Irondale team went into action, reaching out to Brooklyn’s community of artists for works that opened-up new avenues of response and resistance to the ever-increasing threats and fears generated by this new administration’s policies.
For example, on Friday, March 17th, in a program called Yearning to Breathe Free, produced by Irondale Ensemble member Sam Metzger, four works tell stories about immigrants and include the short plays No Sanctuary, Theater of the Oppressed, and 16 Bars as well as excerpts from the webseries Three Trembling Cities. Following the films, a short panel, with a representative from BAJI (Black Alliance for Just Immigration) and the actors from Three Trembling Cities, will talk about some of the issues explored with the audience.
Niesen, reflecting on the energy and artistry of the programmed works, understands full well the powerful role that art can play. “Good art presents us with choices. It challenges us. It appeals to the better angels of our nature as the better way to redefine and refocus America.”
Join the Irondale Ensemble as it appeals to the better angels of our nature in what promises to be a dynamic, thought-provoking series of performances. For information about the varied programs NOT NORMAL offers and specific dates and times go to www.irondale.org.
Admittance is free although a suggested $10 donation would be greatly appreciated.
Irondale Theater 85 South Oxford, Brooklyn, NY 718-488-9233 (near all subway at Barclay Center/C Lafayette Street/G Fulton Street)
One of the most rewarding aspects of producing Three Trembling Cities was the experience of casting. The ensemble nature of the series, created to reflect the face of today’s New York immigrant community, allowed us to tap into a deep reservoir of talent, working actors many of whom have confronted the casting pitfalls of ethnic and racial stereotyping. Our intention with Three Trembling Cities, was, in fact, to cast to that stereotype. We needed our characters — from the restaurant-working refugee from Eritrea to the first-generation Iranian-American lawyer to the undocumented Somalian jewelry-maker — to visually read as type so we could upend the reductive narrative of those “stereotypes” by asserting their humanity as individuals who navigate the universal vicissitudes of love, friendship, work, family and dreams.
With the countdown to the inauguration in full swing, and the unprecedented campaign vitriol directed at immigrants still painfully raw, I thought it would be valuable to reach out to our actors and elicit their reflections on their Three Trembling Cities experience and how the issues it raises affects their lives as artists and first or second generation immigrants themselves.
Arash Mokhtar as “Behrouz”
How unusual was it to read a script focused exclusively on the lives of NYC immigrants?
AM (Arash Mokhtar/Behrouz):It wasn’t just unusual to read a script about the daily lives of immigrants in NYC, it may have been the first script of its sort I’ve ever read. There may be stories about immigrants out there but those stories seem to hinge the character’s entire essence on the fact of their immigrant status, aka “otherness,” rather than them being immigrants simply as a circumstance among many that they find themselves having to navigate. So the script was one of a kind, truly.
PP (Pascale Piquion/Madha): It was refreshing actually. There should be nothing unusual about it but unfortunately these stories are underrepresented. However, Three Trembling Cities does a splendid job of revealing parts of the immigrant experience here in New York.
SA (Sherz Aletaha/Azin): It was refreshing! Especially the way Arthur wrote the stories; yes, these people are immigrants but they are also humans. They’re dealing with family, relationships, jobs, things that every person in the world deals with. Sometimes when you hear stories about immigrants it only focuses on that [immigrant status]and doesn’t include any of the other aspects of their lives.
PG (Peter Goitom/Dawit): It was not as unusual as it would have been ten years ago, specifically with a series. As of late, we’ve started to see the emergence of scripted series such as Master of None, The Mindy Project, and Fresh off the Boat, all focusing on immigrants or first-generation Americans. That being said, Three Trembling Cities is unique in the sense that I haven’t come across much, if anything, that covers the breadth of cultures that this series does.
YD (Yacine Djoumbaye/Babacar): It was very unusual [to get this script] especially looking at TV shows that are portraying life in the city. Immigrants are never front and center. They are only seen as your cab driver or local store owner. Their lives, what they go through, their version of the American dream, that is never reflected.
TF (Tjasa Ferme/Ilona): I fell in love with the script immediately. I thought oh thank god finally something smart and unpredictable. I would be mad at the director for not casting me. What my character and I have in common is this unique combination of impulsiveness and wildness with the quest to turn every possible thought inside out.
How easy was it for you to find a connection to your character?
YD: Creating human beings is our job as actors, breathing life into the character, showing complexities. [For Babacar] all those were drawn from personal experiences and the things I’ve seen my fellow immigrant friends go through. Everything Babacar is going thru I have either witnessed or personally experienced.
Sherz Aletaha as “Azin”
SA: I played Azin and I definitely connected to her because we’re both first generation Iranian American. I don’t look stereotypically Persian so it was really exciting that Arthur and Daria cast me because I felt like this was my upbringing and I could bring a lot of authenticity to the character (minus being an uptight lawyer who *spoiler alert* cheats on her husband).
ND (Nandita Chandra: Urmi): My character is an Indian woman who is completing her Ph.D. She’s got all the right boxes checked on paper (great husband, great background, great grad school) but she wants more than what seems right on paper…primarily the rediscovery of who she is at her core.
IR (Irungu Mutu/Abdul): Abdul is a complicated, loving and driven character. He loves his new world family and has a passion for food and cooking. I worked in the food industry for many years and knew numerous cooks and chefs from different countries in Africa. I also know that is an easy place to get a job if you don’t have paperwork.
AM: I played Behrouz, the actor who is going to visit Iran to stage a new play he has been working on. I’ll be honest, it wasn’t that much of a stretch. I’ve never been back to Iran (I was born in Tehran) since my family left. But I’m very familiar with what it is for a family to leave a “home” country to provide a better life for their children. In this way, my life dovetails very simply with Behrouz, aside from the obvious facts of my being Iranian and an actor here in NYC. There is a sense of responsibility, I think, right or wrong, that automatically gets ingrained as I watched my parents sacrifice for me and my sister. We have to live a free and meaningful life, because our parents saw fit, or were daring enough, to abandon theirs to start all over, incredibly, for us. There is a strong sense of that in Behrouz, and I understand it, even if we handle it in different ways. That was my door into the role.
Peter Goitom as “Dawit” and Irungu Mutu as “Abdul”
PG: As a first-generation Eritrean-American, I didn’t have to look far for inspiration to capture the struggle of an Eritrean refugee who is new to America [but] Dawit faces different barriers to his goals of a better life than my parents and extended family faced. That being said, their goals, values, and persistence to pursue the former without sacrificing the latter were all parallels that made the role a very personal connection [for me]. It is really interesting because the first half of the series reminds me more of my life. The relationship between Behrouz and Azin has some similarities to the relationship I have with my brother and sister, while Urmi and Ilona remind me of close friends. I definitely know people in New York City who remind me of the characters in the second half of the series, but despite the time gap, they will always be more strongly associated with my parents’ generation.
How frustrating or not frustrating has it been for you to get cast, especially in TV/movies, in roles that don’t pigeonhole you because of the color of your skin?
YD: It is a little frustrating at times because the immigrants we see on TV are basic caricatures. Three Trembling Cities is one of the first steps towards a “Hamilton” effect. NYC is full of immigrants. The U.S. was built by immigrants so it is only natural to tell the immigrant story. It is as American as apple pie.
PP: I audition for roles that I would be a good fit for and most of the time those roles are for women of color. We are in a time now where artists are creating their own content, especially in the independent world and now we are seeing more of it on our TV screens with shows like The Mindy Project, Insecure and Atlanta. Diversity in TV and film is on the rise. I also think we will see a move to more colorless casting where casting directors are looking for the best actor for the role regardless of their racial background.
IM: It is twice as hard. Even beyond dropping the accent, if you have an African or foreign first and last name it is also tough. TV and film is tougher than theater because there is more freedom in the theater and more open mindedness. Creating your own content as a person of color is the best way to guarantee you will see yourself and your stories on a screen near you.
SH: I have a weird struggle when it comes to being a Middle Eastern actor because I am 100% Middle Eastern but I don’t look like what people have decided is Middle Eastern. So I get called in for these roles and I have to audition for people who have made up their mind about what my heritage is supposed to look like and judge me for it. I’m too light skinned, my eyes are green, I can’t possibly be this ethnicity even though I am. Hopefully the entertainment industry can just get to a place where talented performers of any and all backgrounds are the ones who get to tell the stories.
PG: I think we’ve started to see more diversification of content. Studios can always take it further, and there does need to be improvement on the complexity of minority characters. We have very recently entered an age that allows us to freely push original content. Until we are a few more years into this age of studios picking up independent web-series, I think it’s premature to harshly criticize the industry, even if it is dragging its feet.
Pascale Piquion as “Madha” and Yacine Djoumbaye as “Babacar”
AM: Am I frustrated? Sure. Is that frustration based on the deliberate unwillingness or the unconscious prejudice of casting/producers to see outside their limited scope? Yes. It’s all of those things, and much more. The thing is, and this may just be my own sense of survival kicking in, I have never defined myself by these terms, color, ethnicity, other, etc. I’m aware of them, of course, but I never saw myself as an immigrant or middle-eastern or an outsider. These things were facts to me, like I had black hair, not defining characteristics to be judged. It wasn’t until I was in entertainment that I started hearing the term “ethnically-ambiguous” or “ethnically-diverse” in regards to my own self as an actor. It’s been helpful, to some degree, to begin to see and accept what it is the world is pushing onto your image and how I ultimately have to decide how to navigate that, if at all. Some characters may indeed have a racial component in their “breakdown” and that’s fine but I think that is really rare, though that seems to be the modus operandi for many stories being told. Yes, it is a real thing, the idea that when people read a story, they seem to presume whiteness and male-ness in general for the central characters. The fact that I seldom, if ever, get seen for a substantial role on something that has no racial definition in regards to character is problematic and limiting and, in my opinion, just bullshit. I think not only do I suffer the indignity of not being able to show producers what I can offer, they suffer a lack of seeing fully fleshed out human beings from somewhere other than their comfortable sphere of influence, and audiences absorb that and so it affects how stories are heard and in return, told….and so on and so on. So we really need to smash open the box(es) we are told to stay in. I put no stock in it.
Although unplanned, the release of the series has coincided with a political upheaval in which being an immigrant has come under threat. Have you felt the effects of this change in your daily life in New York?
PP: Personally I have not. I have read about some very unfortunate incidences that have taken place and that does affect me, it should affect us all. I’ve never witnessed our country so polarized but I think we each have a responsibility to not let fear and ignorance divide us. We are for the most part a nation of immigrants and making people feel unwelcome is hypocritical and total nonsense. Movements like Black Lives Matter and The Water Protectors at Standing Rock show that we still have a long way to go in this country immigrant or not. We need to do more to understand one another and a series like Three Trembling Cities does a great job in doing just that.
IM: People are more alert, aware, [feel] less free, have more conviction, more self-consciousness, less hope, [and are] unsure of future of American dream.
TF: Frightening! I wouldn’t want to be in a position of applying or waiting for a visa or green card now. It feels like the worst is now possible.
AM: Yes, the political arena is now a disaster. A total, unmitigated disaster. It reminds me of a Bukowski line from the poem “What They Want”, “A lit billboard in hell.” At any rate, yes, it’s affected me personally. I’ve had some face-offs on the streets but nothing I wouldn’t normally chalk up to NY’ers to begin with. Some dear friends of mine have certainly bore much worse attacks here in the city. What effect will we see in our daily lives, I think, remains to be seen. There is clearly a systematic design to dismantling all that we have held dear and true and pure in this country, whether that’s our air, water or rights.
Top photo: Foreground: Arash Mokhtar as “Behrouz” and Sherz Aletaha as “Azin” Background: Nandita Chandra as “Urmi” and Tjasa Ferme as “Ilona”
On the eve of the American Revolution’s final battle at Yorktown, as portrayed in the musical Hamilton, Lafayette and Hamilton cross paths and, in a brief exchange, these two freedom fighters share a private moment of mutual admiration. “Immigrants,” they shout in unison as they high-five each other, “we get the job done.”
I had the incredible good fortune to be sitting right in the front row (my husband and I won tickets through the online lottery) and the audience reaction to that exchange is one I’ll never forget. A roar of individual voices let loose such a fiery mix of shout outs, cheers, that’s right, yeah’s, hoots and hollers, I immediately realized everyone wanted in on that high five. Myself included. Lin Manuel Miranda may have authored the stage moment, but its truth belonged to all of us. Of course, that was in October. Four weeks before the election.
Just eight months earlier I had met up with fellow filmmaker and long-time friend Arthur Vincie to discuss a script he had just completed for a ten-part web series on immigrants in New York City called Three Trembling Cities. He lifted the title from E.B. White’s famous 1949 essay “Here is New York.” In what is essentially a love letter to New York, White observed that it is the settlers – those who come in quest of something – that give the city its passion. It is the immigrants, he understands, that make New York tremble with hope.
When Arthur invited me to come onboard as a producer, I didn’t hesitate. Back in February, the political rhetoric around the word immigrant had already hardwired into a freakish schizophrenia. Immigrants were increasingly labeled as either the source of all our ills or at the heart of what makes America great. The word itself, so burdened with outsize meaning, had been reduced to code for “other.” In that capacity, it was headlined almost nightly on the evening news.
What I liked about Arthur’s script was his choice to build an ensemble of characters whose “otherness” is explored without resorting to the easy pitfalls of narrative extremes or self-conscious stereotype correction. He presents his characters through the shared humanity of their everyday struggles while infusing each with enough of an “immigrant” backstory to sharpen the prism through which we see them as individuals.
For example, Behrouz, a first-generation Iranian-American, whose parents sacrificed everything to give him a chance at the great American dream, feels compelled to constantly rationalize his choice to be an artist to his sister Azin, a high-powered lawyer. Babacar, a jewelry maker from Senegal, is forced, through no fault of his own, to negotiate his living in the shadows because his father brought him over with fake papers. And Madha, a Guyanese-American waitress, whose mother’s citizenship secured her own, watches helplessly as her roommate fails his merit hearing, leaving her in the hell that New Yorkers know as searching for a new apartment.
Arash Mokhtar as Behrouz
We crowdfunded the budget online, with donations coming primarily from the immigrant community, and by early spring we were casting. Putting out a call for actors to play everything from an Eritrean refugee to an aspiring chef from Kenya to a PhD candidate from India, like the musical Hamilton, emphasized the underutilized reservoir of talent that exists here in New York. The shooting took us all over the city – Sunset Park, Bushwick, Jackson Heights, Williamsburg, Brooklyn Heights and the lower east side –and by mid-summer all ten-episodes had been shot. By early fall we were ready to release season one. We knew the production was solid and hoped that despite having a shoe-string publicity budget, we could coax a slow build for the series online. Then the election happened.
The earthquake of the Trump Presidency spread a tsunami of fear and uncertainty across the city. Swastikas defaced a playground named after the Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch. A transit worker wearing a hijab was pushed down the stairs at Grand Central. And an Arab-American policewoman and 16-year veteran of the force was verbally harassed, accused of being a member of ISIS and told to go back home.
By releasing our ten-part web-series for free on multiple web platforms – Amazon Direct, Brooklyn on Demand, Rikaroo, Stareable and Vimeo – we hope it can serve not only as a worthwhile piece of filmmaking but also as an educational tool and starting point for dialogue that can breakdown the stigma of the “other” and remind everyone what E.B. White recognized 67 years ago:
There are roughly three New Yorks… the New York of those who were born here… the New York of the commuter… and the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these three trembling cities, the greatest is the last – the city of final destination… Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion.
-E. B. White, Here Is New York
I like to imagine that E.B. White, perched in some kind of fantastic writer’s heaven, has checked out the musical “Hamilton” and feels that Layfayette and Hamilton’s high-five belongs to him, too.
Top photo: Madha (Pascale Piquion) and Babacar (Yacine Djoumbaye)
Three Trembling Cities, a new ten-part web series on New York City immigrants, is now available on Amazon.com, Rikaroo.com, Brooklynondemand.com, Stareable.com and Vimeo.
In an October 2014 edition of The New Yorker, Jennifer Gonnerman wrote about sixteen-year-old Bronx resident, Kaleif Browder, who, in the spring of 2010, was sent to Rikers for allegedly stealing a backpack. After three years – two of them in solitary confinement – his case was dropped due to lack of evidence. Kaleif returned home a shattered nineteen-year-old. Two years later he committed suicide. Sadly, Kaleif’s story is not unique.
As the human tragedy that America’s courts have inflicted upon so many of our citizens comes into ugly focus, the call to reform the criminal justice system may be reaching a tipping point. President Obama and House Speaker Paul Ryan recently went on record vowing to work together on a reform plan during the President’s last year in office. Let’s hope they can.
The United States has five percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the prison population, most of them poor, vulnerable and minorities. Shockingly, not even China, with a population four times larger, comes close to our percentages. In fact, according to a recent National Research Council report, the one country whose prison rates are estimated to equal or exceed ours is North Korea.
Arriving at this propitious moment is Baz Dreisinger’s new book, Incarceration Nations. An Associate Professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and founder of the innovative Prison-to-College Pipeline program, Dreisinger knows first hand the human faces, and family heartbreak behind the statistics.
In an effort to re-think America’s punitive model of justice, Dreisinger turned a recent sabbatical into a bold quest. She visited prisons in nine countries – Uganda, Rawanda, South Africa, Jamaica, Brazil, Austraila, Thailand, Singapore and Norway – engaging whenever possible with inmates through drama workshops, art and writing classes, and restorative justice programs. She hoped her experience would deliver a shock to her system and help her imagine what true reform might look like. How were other countries managing their prisons? What was working? What was not?
In Thailand she directed women prisoners as they acted out the scenarios that landed many of them in prison: serving as drug mules for their boyfriends. Deep in the Rwanda hillside, she worked with genocide survivors who forgave then welcomed back into the community the perpetrators who, nineteen years ago, slaughtered their neighbors. In Uganda’s notoriously over crowded prison system, where there are no toilets and human beings are crammed together like sardines, she led a writing workshop where inmates wrote about childhoods filled with poverty and abuse. And in Brazil’s Penitenciária Federal de Catanduvas, the country’s first supermax, she met Carlos who compared his solitary confinement (an American export started by Quakers) to the feeling of being buried alive.
Dreisinger’s first person narrative reads, to great effect, like a series of ominous set-ups to a variety of hellish nightmares. In South Africa “the air is el dente” and her hotel room feels like a “royal carriage house” albeit within walking distance of Pollsmoor Prison, one of the most dangerous places on earth. At other times, she disrupts the flow of her thought-provoking narrative with observational platitudes. “Punishment” she writes “is backword looking. Forgiveness, on the other hand, is forward looking.”
Such idealism may make us feel good but the challenges necessary to bring about real change mean confronting messy, complex truths like our history with slavery, prejudice, economic inequality, and the hopelessness all that entails. More instructive is Dreisinger’s Martin Luther King, Jr. quote: “Compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that the edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” Society must find a way to guard the safety of its citizens within a justice system that guarantees respect and compassion for the victim while offering perpetrators a realistic path to redemption, not the inhuman treatment that shames all of us who imagine we live in a civilized society.
Dreisinger’s last stop, Norway, is the only true relief to what is, in the end, a very dark journey through deep pockets of abandoned humanity. Norway boasts of its “penal exceptionalism,” where short sentences are the norm, prisons have flat screen televisions, all kinds of classes, wrap around sofas, well-educated correction officers, and very low rates of recidivism. Yet Norway’s inmates caution Dreisinger not to be fooled; despite their surroundings, they are prisoners all the same.
Incarceration Nations is an important book, one that pulls back the curtain on a global human tragedy that, for most of us, is hidden from view. The author’s unique ability to draw out the humanity in even the most troubled of souls reflects the passion and understanding she brings to her work. Her Prison-to-College Pipeline program, like her writing class in Uganda and drama workshop in Thailand, is a beacon of light that illuminates a steping stone on a path to change. One can only hope that if President Obama and House Speaker Paul Ryan stay true to their vows to begin the long-awaited criminal justice reform, activists like Baz Dreisinger will be invited to take a seat at the table.