Monday, November 26, 2007

Review: "Queens Boulevard (the Musical)"

Over the weekend we caught a matinee of Queens Boulevard (the musical) at an off-broadway theater in New York. The play has already been covered at both SAJAForum and Ultrabrown; here are my own impressions.

The cast of Queens Boulevard has three people of South Asian descent in it, and Charles Mee, the playwright, mentions in the script that "Queens Boulevard (the musical) was inspired by the Katha-Kali play The Flower of Good Fortune by Kottayan Tampuran." The central plot of the story is partly a reworking of the Shakuntala myth, and partly a version of Homer's The Odyssey -- and sometimes both at once.

I had a number of problems with the play, but I want to start with the positives.

First, the musical numbers are terrific. At times they create a really interesting sense of cross-cultural collage, and the choreography and dancing is well-done. The show makes good use of a Punjabi wedding song (twice), an Asian Karaoke rendition of Abba's "Dancing Queen," M.I.A.'s "10 Dollar," French hip hop, a Gaelic ballad, and a half-dozen other songs. (Far and away, the high point of the show for me was the glam/nightclub dance sequence set to the M.I.A. song.)

Second, the set design by Mimi Lien is pretty brilliant -- it's a lively snapshot of a street in Jackson Heights, with Indo-Pak-Bangla shops, travel agencies, Chinese and Korean signs, and Bollywood film ads plastering every surface. It captures the energy and bustle of Queens without seeming busy.

Third, I liked the play's appropriation of Kalidasa's Shakuntala story (or see Wikipedia for a summary). Though it was introduced near the end of a play as a long monologue, it was done quite well.

Finally, the overall effect the play is going for is a multi-culti pastiche, with East Asian, South Asian, Middle Eastern, Caribbean, and Eastern European, cultures all moving together and interacting in the same space. Getting this to work on stage reflects a sincere and admirable kind of ambition on the part of the playwright and cast, and I wish people would try doing it more.

Unfortunately, in my opinion the actual plot and the dialogue in the play as written is often quite bad. There are numerous long, ponderous monologues about love and fidelity that drag the energy of the play down, again and again.

You don't have to just take my word for it -- Charles Mee has posted the entire text of his play online at his website. Here is one of the monologues I personally found to be cliché-ridden deadweight:

I mean, you know,
it's wonderful that you've just been married
that you have found the love
we all hope for
even if we're born
with parents we love
still we look for the one who is meant only for us
and then, it seems,
when the time comes that we lose our parents
we see that any love we find in life
lives amidst these other loves we've lost and found and lost,
the love of parents
if we're lucky
if we grow as we're meant to grow
nourished and protected by the love of our families and our friends
so that your love for your wife
belongs to this sea of love
of social love
and is nourished and sustained by that
because, as we all come to know,
it's not enough just to experience carnal love
or erotic love
or personal love
because, none of us is safe in our own lives and loves
without the social love that makes a safe place
for our personal love to flourish
the regard, the respect,
and, then, too, as we have come to see,
the recognition of all kinds of love deepens each one
so that your love for your wife is deepened
and honored and sustained
when you act on your love for your friends and their families. (link)

If you go for that sort of thing, you might enjoy Queens Boulevard more than I did. My feeling is that Charles Mee's mistake here is to try and impose long segments of "serious" and conventional "drama" between the surrealist, cross-cultural musical numbers. A better approach might have been to keep the "straight" plot and dialogue light -- aim more for the tone of an intelligent romantic comedy perhaps -- or lose it entirely, and go entirely surrealist (in the Richard Foreman vein).

I had some other problems with the play, but I don't want to nitpick.

I should also point out that other people seem to have enjoyed Queens Boulevard more than I did. A commenter at Ultrabrown, for instance, wrote the following:

I just saw QUEENS BOULEVARD this past Friday night, and loved it! It was such a unique theatrical experience–there was music, singing, dancing, a fun script, smart direction, and strong actors. Most of the actors played multiple roles, including Debargo Sanyal, who was downright hilarious as the Paan Beedi Guy (that you mention above), as well as in his several other roles. Geeta Citygirl and Satya Bhabha were great also. And there’s a hysterical little dance set in a Russian bathhouse featuring three of the men (wearing nothing but towels and smiles!) that must be seen to be believed. I highly recommend this production for folks looking to spend a fun evening at the theater this holiday season.(link)

I agree with Ameera on Debargo Sanyal at least, who was indeed one of the standout members of the cast (I hope we'll be seeing more of him down the road, either in the theater, or in TV/movies).

Queens Boulevard (the musical) is playing at the Signature Theatre until December 30. All seats are $20; it's a small theater, so there's no bad seats.

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Thursday, August 09, 2007

Does Diversity Cause Us To Mistrust One Another?

Via Ruchira Paul and 3QD, an article in the Boston Globe about the work of Robert Putnam, a Harvard University political scientist. The Globe summarizes the gist of the article as follows:

It has become increasingly popular to speak of racial and ethnic diversity as a civic strength. From multicultural festivals to pronouncements from political leaders, the message is the same: our differences make us stronger.

But a massive new study, based on detailed interviews of nearly 30,000 people across America, has concluded just the opposite. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam -- famous for "Bowling Alone," his 2000 book on declining civic engagement -- has found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings.

"The extent of the effect is shocking," says Scott Page, a University of Michigan political scientist.

The study comes at a time when the future of the American melting pot is the focus of intense political debate, from immigration to race-based admissions to schools, and it poses challenges to advocates on all sides of the issues. The study is already being cited by some conservatives as proof of the harm large-scale immigration causes to the nation's social fabric. But with demographic trends already pushing the nation inexorably toward greater diversity, the real question may yet lie ahead: how to handle the unsettling social changes that Putnam's research predicts. (link)

What makes this all more interesting is the fact that Robert Putnam is not himself a conservative, but a progressive-minded scholar who supports diversity. He didn't expect these findings when he started this project, and has worked hard to make sure they are understood correctly -- though anti-immigrant conservatives have definitely been eating this up.

I want to speculate a little on how South Asian immigrants might fit into the 'diversity problem' Putnam's study raises, but before that it seems important to get into a little more detail about just what Putnam is saying. Please forgive the long quote:

The results of his new study come from a survey Putnam directed among residents in 41 US communities, including Boston. Residents were sorted into the four principal categories used by the US Census: black, white, Hispanic, and Asian. They were asked how much they trusted their neighbors and those of each racial category, and questioned about a long list of civic attitudes and practices, including their views on local government, their involvement in community projects, and their friendships. What emerged in more diverse communities was a bleak picture of civic desolation, affecting everything from political engagement to the state of social ties.

Putnam knew he had provocative findings on his hands. He worried about coming under some of the same liberal attacks that greeted Daniel Patrick Moynihan's landmark 1965 report on the social costs associated with the breakdown of the black family. There is always the risk of being pilloried as the bearer of "an inconvenient truth," says Putnam.

After releasing the initial results in 2001, Putnam says he spent time "kicking the tires really hard" to be sure the study had it right. Putnam realized, for instance, that more diverse communities tended to be larger, have greater income ranges, higher crime rates, and more mobility among their residents -- all factors that could depress social capital independent of any impact ethnic diversity might have.

"People would say, 'I bet you forgot about X,'" Putnam says of the string of suggestions from colleagues. "There were 20 or 30 X's."

But even after statistically taking them all into account, the connection remained strong: Higher diversity meant lower social capital. In his findings, Putnam writes that those in more diverse communities tend to "distrust their neighbors, regardless of the color of their skin, to withdraw even from close friends, to expect the worst from their community and its leaders, to volunteer less, give less to charity and work on community projects less often, to register to vote less, to agitate for social reform more but have less faith that they can actually make a difference, and to huddle unhappily in front of the television." (link)

Wow -- that's a long list of problems associated with living in diverse communities! Personally, I've never felt the difference Putnam's study finds, but for the most part I've mainly lived in relatively diverse places. I've lived in glum diverse places (Malden, MA; Bethlehem, PA) -- where no one would give me the time of day or even stop and say 'hi' -- and somewhat happier diverse places (Potomac, MD; Parsippany, NJ; New Haven, CT; Durham, NC; and my current town of Conshohocken, PA). Most places I've lived, though, I've felt that most people do "hunker down" and spend their evenings in front of the TV. I've never lived in the vibrant downtown of a big city (sigh), nor have I ever lived in a place that was really ethnically homogeneous -- so perhaps I've only seen one side of this.

People interested in seeing more detail -- and hearing it directly from Putnam, might want to check out the article in question here. For the most part it should be readable for non-academics (it helps if you know what he means by "social capital"), though Putnam does get into some statistical analysis that goes over my head.

The other big questions are 1) why could this be happening, 2) what can be done about it, and 3) is it a permanent problem, or merely a temporary phenomenon associated with recent immigration, which will dissipate over time?

One can easily speculate that the answer to (1) has to do with the natural mistrust produced when people have different ethnic and racial backgrounds, different cultural values, speak different languages, and so on. The answers to (2) and (3) are harder.

Again, thinking speculatively here, I'm not sure that anything can be actively done about (2), but I do feel quite confident on (3) that the mistrust and the lower "social capital" Putnam sees in more diverse communities is likely to dissipate over time -- as immigrants acculturate and/or assimilate. Here, one's experience as a second-gen desi comes into play. And the high levels of interracial dating and marrying out of one's ethnic group seen among second and third generation Asian immigrants suggests that blending is already well under way.

Putnam himself agrees with that prognosis, and in his article, quotes Barack Obama to that effect. Obama has called for:

. . . an America where race is understood in the same way that the ethnic diversity of the white population is understood. People take pride in being Irish-American and Italian-American. They have a particular culture that infuses the (whole) culture and makes it richer and more interesting. But it's not something that determines people's life chances and there is no sense of superiority or inferiority. . . . [I]f we can expand that attitude to embrace African-Americans and Latino-Americans and Asian-Americans, then . . . all our kids can feel comfortable with the worlds they are coming out of, knowing they are part of something larger. (link)

Obama is in effect calling for "race" to start acting more like immigrant "ethnicity" -- for it to be malleable, and open to the possibility of its own diminishing value as an element of division. Are South Asians a "race" or an "ethnicity"? Though I'm proud of my Indian heritage and proud of being both an Indian American and a practicing Sikh, I tend to agree with Obama on the value of thinking of oneself as part of "something larger," and of not allowing one's ethnic background to determine one's "life chances."

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