A Memorable Theater Experience in Berkeley

I am a theater buff and was delighted to be able to attend shows in London and New York this summer. The San Francisco Bay Area also has a lot to offer in the way of theater, and in order to go often and inexpensively while I’m here, I have taken advantage of “rush tickets” and “pay as much as you want” evenings at certain theaters.

When I go to a play, I appreciate a good story, good acting, and good “tempo.” There were a few plays I haven’t appreciated while here, but on the whole I’ve come away satisfied. Some of the plays I’ve particularly enjoyed this fall are Bill Irwin’s original adaptation of Molière’s comedy “Les Fourberies de Scapin” at San Francisco’s ACT, Word-for-Word’s rendering of stories from “Olive Kitteridge” ( the best-selling book by Elizabeth Strout), African-American Alice Childress’ “Trouble in Mind” at the Aurora, and Ann Randolph’s one-woman show at The Marsh in Berkeley. All of these plays had their own value, but I think the show that really had an impact on me and rises above the others was “The Great Game: Afghanistan”, which I saw two weeks ago at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

Produced by London’s Tricycle Theatre and supported by the British Council, “The Great Game” was only in Berkeley for two weeks, en route to Minneapolis, New York and Washington, D.C.  A collection of short scripts by 12 playwrights that are divided into three parts, it is a seven and a half hour trilogy telling the story of western intervention in Afghanistan over the past 150 years. Audiences had the option of seeing all three plays in a day-long marathon or on different days or just seeing one or two of the plays individually.   I opted to see each of the three plays in chronological order over a Friday, Saturday and Sunday.  I don’t regret my choice, although friends who chose the marathon said it meant for a truly worthwhile experience because they became fully absorbed in the story and characters.

Commenting on the play, artistic director Nicolas Kent said: “We very much hope that this trilogy and the theatre can play its part in continuing to stimulate the public’s discussion and debate on what is currently the most important focus of UK and American foreign policy.” In a way, “The Game” resembles a mini history course on how competing countries try to control Afghanistan and the latter’s fierce resistance to foreign domination. Part One is entitled “Invasions and Independence” and covers the period 1842-1929; Part Two, “Communism, the Mujahideen and the Taliban” (1980-1996); and Part Three, “Enduring Freedom” (1996-2009).

But in addition to being very informative, the plays are also very entertaining. Kudos to the 14 British actors who took on so many different roles and performed so well!  And what a treat iwas to hear real British accents here in Berkeley!

As is often the case in Bay Area theaters, Berkeley Rep provided theater-goers with the opportunity to hear a post-performance talk by someone associated with the play. In this case, director Indhu Rubasingham engaged in conversation with Dr. Mohammad Qayoumi, the first Afghan-American to become president of a U.S. university. I wasn’t able to attend their talk, but I had the good fortune of standing next  to Ms Rubasingham during the intermission on the first day’s performance and being able to ask her a few questions about the production. She told me how the plays were commissioned and put together; she also described how after spending the whole day together watching the trilogy, audiences in London would begin discussing and sharing their views during intermissions and before and after the show.

I feel lucky about whom I sat with during two of the three performances. On the first day, which was for the press, I was the guest of my friend Diane Le Bow, a photo journalist who has visited Afghanistan several times and has written about her experiences there. She even helped organize and participated in a conference held in Tajikistan in 2000 during which Afghan women debated what statements they wanted written into the new Afghan Constitution.  After seeing the show together, we had a very interesting conversation, and I learned a lot from her. I went on my own the second day, but at curtain’s close, feeling the emotion of the moment, the two people stting next to me and I began talking.

The woman to my left told us her brother is a judge advocate in the elite U.S. Army Rangers and has been in Afghanistan for the past year, following deployments to Iraq and Bosnia. His wife, who is also a lawyer and who joined the army in order to pay for college, has now been sent to Afghanistan as well. They have a ten-month-old baby they’ve had to leave behind with grandparents. She said her brother had really changed over the past few years and was suffering from PTSD.  She’d come to see the play to learn more about the country and the situation there.

The young man on my right said after two tours in Afghanistan, his cousin also suffered from PTSD: he had returned “racist” and “crazy”. This made the young man wonder whether his decision to soon join the army in order to get med school paid for was a good idea. He said he wanted to specialize in “field medicine” and that UC Davis had a good program in this that the army would pay for. He also said his dream was to join MSF (Medecins sans Frontieres) following graduation. The woman, who told us she was of Hungarian descent, advised him NOT to join the army; she saw what had happened to her brother.  She spoke to the young man about Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros, saying that he should apply to him for a scholarship to attend medical school.  As for me, I told the young man I was pretty sure he could be a doctor for MSF even without majoring in field medicine, so he wouldn’t necessarily have to go to Davis and join the army. When we parted in front of the theater, the young man thanked the woman and me profusely for listening and giving him some suggestions.

I realized the three of us had each come to see the play for different reasons.  Indhu Rubasingham was right: As in London, “The Great Game” had incited us to discuss and share. In addition to the provocative subject matter and the quality of the acting, the play had elicited our, as well as others’, reactions and comments about many different subjects related to Afghanistan and western intervention there.

Although I am a theater buff and go often to the theater, not all the plays I’ve seen have provided such a memorable experience as “The Great Game: Afghanistan”.

Published in: on November 17, 2010 at 10:29 pm  Comments (1)  

A Cross-Cultural Dilemma

Last week I attended a French ladies’ luncheon at a lovely home in the Oakland hills. The occasion was the annual meeting of the San Francisco Bay Area branch of an international French reading group called “La Bibliotheque Orange.” It also happened to be the birthday of one of their members, Isabelle, who had brought a delicious French apple tart to celebrate.

Instead of a Frenchified version of “Happy Birthday to You”, Isabelle requested that we sing a more traditional birthday song entitled “Bon Anniversaire” by Jacques Larue.  Her eyes filling with tears, she said this was the song her mother used to sing to her when she was a little girl living in the south of France. Coached by the oldest member of the group, Isabelle and several of the other women sang the two stanzas of the song, beginning and ending with the refrain:

Bon anniversaire
Nos voeux les plus sincères
Que ces quelques fleurs
Vous apportent le bonheur
Que l’année entière
Vous soit douce et légère
Et que l’an fini
Nous soyons tous réunis
Pour chanter en choeur
Bon anniversaire !

(rough translation : Happy Birthday/With our most sincere wishes/Let these few flowers/bring you happiness/Let this whole year /Be sweet and light for you/And when the year is over/Let us all reunite/To sing in chorus/Happy Birthday.)

Once Isabelle had blown out the three candles on the tart—representing, I was told, the past, present and future of her life– a lively discussion ensued. Some of the women, who had only vague recollections of the song, requested information about Larue, the songwriter, and the most famous interpreter of it, Andre Claveau. They also wondered how they could get the words to the song. (Their request was granted the next day, when one industrious lady sent them out to everyone by email.)  All the women present agreed how much more this old French tune meant to them than the French version of the American song they usually were required to sing at gatherings in the U.S.

Most of these French women are married to Americans or have lived for many years in America with their French husbands. Many have acquired American citizenship and raised American or dual-national children. These women often get together here in local groups like “La Bibliotheque Orange” or “Les Amis de la Culture Française” to be able to speak their own language, to reminisce about France, and to keep up the old traditions like the song and the three-candled cake.

This luncheon got me thinking. Even though these women return to France for holidays, I wonder how they would feel if they were to return to France to live. Many of them have told me they like living in the U.S. and feel comfortable here. They’re not so sure they could readapt to living in their own country again permanently.

Reflecting on this, I realize that in many ways, my own situation is the mirror image of theirs. Marriage and emigration took me to France, where I have lived for 40 years, working and raising a family. When  I’m at my home in Paris, and even though I speak fluent French and have dual citizenship,  like the French women here,  I, too, enjoy getting together from time-to-time with my native compatriots and keeping up the old traditions.

Now that I’m retired and on my own, I’ve been spending more time out of France over the past three years—either traveling throughout the world or in California, where I grew up as a child. Being back in the Bay Area for the last ten months, I admit it feels good to “melt in,” to be able to speak a language without any trace of a “foreign” accent, to reconnect with the American way of life, to enjoy the wide variety of activities and events offered here, and to see old friends and make new ones, including a new beau.

Nevertheless, I must also admit that is has taken me awhile to acclimate myself to being “American” again. After living in France longer than I have lived in my native country, I realize that I am also, in many ways, very French. Having not had contact with French people over the last months, I found myself enjoying speaking French again and sharing news about events and family back in France. And even though I wasn’t familiar with the French birthday song, I, too, appreciated how much more charming it is than the simplistic American “Happy Birthday to You” ditty. It was also fun to hear the ladies discuss food and to sample the crème fraîche one woman had learned to make from scratch from American milk. And how much more delectable their luncheon was than the usual fare offered at American pot-lucks!

Hence, my dilemma: Where is home? I ask myself.   I wonder how many other retired, middle-aged dual-nationals, or long-term expatriates or refugees share this quandary.  Is home our native land, or is it the country where we have spent the greatest part of our lives?  Undoubtedly, for many of us the answer to this question is “both places.” And if our economic or political situation permits it, many of us might like to spend half of the year in each place. But is it realistic long-term traveling back and forth? And how do you reconcile the need to be close to your immediate family, your old friends, and your home in one place, with your yearning to go back to your roots and to enjoy the life you have recreated in your homeland?

Published in: on November 1, 2010 at 7:56 pm  Comments (6)