I went with my spouse to see a play at the Steppenwolf Theater downtown. As we reminded ourselves, it’s an example of what we like and why we wanted to live where we do. That the play was really good was adding frosting to a pleasure that didn’t need that part.
The play, ‘Bald Sisters’, was a good one – maybe not the best I’ve ever seen (not sure which one qualifies there – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Bird on a Wire?), but really good and brought multiple tears to my eyes. I’m not a very overt, explicitly emotional person, but plays are the art form that can do that to me. I don’t know if it’s the physical connection to actors as humans right there or maybe the exposed emotions seem to come from a much less scripted place than in cinema, so the rawness ‘feels real’. A little like the best of live music shows compared to studio bands.
The play tells about a family of Cambodian-Americans, with references to their story and stories around leaving Cambodia during the bloody years of the Khmer Rouge. The characters are something of ‘types’ that represent pieces of many of the parts that afflict any and many immigrant stories which in themselves also sometimes are part of contending with changes that modernity brings to immigrant and non-immigrant alike. There are problems and love around traditional parts of life that connect us with those that came before us: prayers and thoughts and food and song all play parts in this. A lovely part of the play is its incorporation of a character who is connected to the Syrian crises and diaspora. While the character is clearly the most minor of the four in the performance, he has some touching scenes such as his recitation/chant of a Muslim prayer for the dead (and other occasions as he tells us).
Again among the pieces of these lives that bounces among refugees from anywhere are the stories of how the (essentially) matriarch came to be with her two daughters, one a motherless child foundering in a refugee camp, the other born by her mother pregnant in her days fleeing the country after her husband died. Those seeds color the lives even as they occurred at an age so young as to make the fallout that much harder to understand. At one point, one sister talks about a ‘heavy smog’ that lies on her, in part because of the complete inability to know how to incorporate it into her life.
Then there is the collision between modernity and what came before. I tend to think of this as something that is cast in starkest relief in America, a country where acceleration to the future and that contrast with the past leaves friction as painful as sandpaper on skin. I think the play had to have this be a piece of the play, but on reflection, I tend to think it did a decent job at not taking it gratuitously. The younger sister has the tropes of youthful rebellion, including a shaved head – she is one of the ‘bald sisters’ after all – and her sometimes inarticulateness, even if well done, feeds into that. On the other hand, she’s the one who grasps for missing depths that tradition provides. Well, maybe not tradition, per se, but their tradition.
And that tradition might have been part of the role given to a character in itself: while Seith/Saif’s Muslim heritage is nicely a part here, there are parts of the Asian experience here that matter specifically on their own. Karaoke, meditation, the idea that Asian women are inherently ‘cute’ (n.b.: I’m married to an Asian woman). It’s tempered a bit by a plot contrivance around how to deal with dead bodies, yet a richness of who we are and the weakness in how our ability to fend off problems is unavoidable gives way to a witness to a certain grace in those parts of our lives that we all deal with.