Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Three Plays in Search of Home

Down Here Below, Scenes from 71* Years, and The Jungle


Down Here Below
Ubuntu Theater Project
The FLAX Building, 1501 Martin Luther King Jr Way, Oakland, CA
Until May 5, 2019

Scenes from 71* Years
Golden Thread Theater
Portero Stage, 1695 18th Street, San Francisco
Until May 5, 2019

The Jungle
Curran Theatre
450 Geary Street, San Francisco
Until May 19, 2019

By Christine Okon

What does home mean to you? Is it the house you grew up in? Is it a lifeline that keeps you from spinning into the existential void? To me, home is more than a place; it’s the deep connection to what has shaped my identity, history, and story.

When I was growing up on the South Side of Chicago in the 1950’s, “DP’s” (an unfortunate, small-minded acronym for “Dumb Polack”) would wander uncertainly through the neighborhood, speak Polish or Czech amongst themselves, wear oversized dark woolen coats and floral head scarves called “babushkas,” and look lost and wary. To a kid (and to many adults), these people were “Other,” and it was not until years later that I learned that DP meant Displaced Person, at that time a refugee from WWII war-torn Europe. In that environment, it was so easy to keep a distance from these people whose lives were turned upside down by forces beyond their control.

Imagine losing home. What grief there is and what resilience is needed to recover from such a disturbance.

Three Bay area plays--Down Here Below, Scenes from 71* Years, and The Jungle--challenge us to hear and respond to individual stories of those who are in search of home.

Down Here Below


Some residents of the "Village of Radical Acceptance" Photo: Jose Manuel Moctezuma 

In the small garage of the Flax Store in downtown Oakland, Ubuntu Theater Project presents Down Here Below, Lisa Ramirez’s compact, intense play set in an Oakland homeless encampment. Inspired by Gorky’s The Lower Depths, Ramirez weaves the individual stories of the many people she interviewed into a tapestry of a present reality that we can choose to acknowledge or ignore. Under the direction of Michael French, the 20 characters in the play create a sense of real street life with cops, addicts, runaways, activists, developers, and others. The action is centered in the makeshift “Village of Radical Acceptance,” with Mama Gwen (Kimberly Daniels) trying to create a sense of family amid the transience and chaos. How ephemeral the idea of “home” is.

Down Here Below does not evoke pity, but engagement. It’s as if we, too, are in the camp; when the developer shows up with a potential property buyer saying “and all of this will be gone, of course,” we feel disregarded, like human debris.

Down Here Below is playing until May 5. More information...

Scenes from 71* Years 


Adam El-Sharkawi and Nida Khalil Photo: Najib Joe Hakim

Golden Thread Productions, dedicated to creating, staging and promoting Middle East theater, presents Scenes from 71* Years at the Potrero stage until May 5.  Written by Hannah Khalil and featuring a superb cast directed by Michael Malek Najjar, Scenes from 71* Years is just that: a montage of different stories over the 71-plus years of Palestinian occupation under Israel. We share the anguish of a man who revisits the home he was pushed out of years ago and is now occupied by Israeli strangers. We feel the indignation and nervousness of women trying to enjoy a picnic on the beach as they are harassed by Israeli guards. And we can share the tedium of waiting in long  checkpoint lines just to go to work across the border. The drama of the play is in the continuity of the story of loss and mourning that is passed down from generation to generation. Scenes from 71* Years  spotlights how much we Americans need to be schooled on the intricacies and treasures of Middle Eastern cultures, and that is indeed the stated mission of Golden Thread Artistic Director Torange Yeghiazarian.

Scenes from 71* Years is at the Potrero Stage until May 5. More information...

In The Jungle (previously reviewed here), we are thrust into the refugee camp in Calais, France to experience the chaos, violence, uncertainty and helplessness felt by individuals from different countries who have been displaced by powers beyond their control.

From a high level, it is easy to view the plight of refugees as one big problem, a problem of borders, security, and political priorities. But when we become engaged in the stories of individuals who are trying to survive after the loss of home, we realize that the human is in the details.


Down Here Below
Ubuntu Theater Project
The FLAX Building
1501 Martin Luther King Jr Way
Oakland, CA 94612
Until May 5, 2019
http://www.ubuntutheaterproject.com/below

Scenes from 71* Years
Golden Thread Theater
Portero Stage, 1695 18th Street, San Francisco
Until May 5, 2019
https://www.goldenthread.org/2019-season/scenes/

The Jungle
Curran Theatre
450 Geary Street, Suite 301
San Francisco, CA 94102
Until May 19, 2019
https://sfcurran.com/shows/the-jungle/

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