An Evening of Drama Cloaked in Sept. 11

December 22, 2001  |  DON SHIRLEY  |  TIMES THEATER WRITER

"A wave of despondency fell on artists" after the events of Sept. 11, said Felix Pire, a writer, actor and director. "A lot of them just wanted to vent their pent-up emotions. It created a reason to create art instantly."

Art can't be as instant as TV coverage, of course. But now, after more than three months, plays in direct response to Sept. 11 are beginning to emerge. An evening of readings at Beyond Baroque in Venice on Thursday, directed by Pire, was devoted to that subject.

"The New Millennium Project: Responses to September 11, 2001" was presented by Levantine Cultural Center, a fledgling organization that is trying to create a place where musicians, dancers, poets, filmmakers and other artists will specifically address Middle Eastern subjects. Part of the group's mission is to create a spirit of coexistence among the region's often clashing ethnicities.

However, the play reading also had roots in other organizations. It began with meetings at the Music Center Annex under the auspices of the Mark Taper Forum. And it was inspired by the New York-based Artists Network, which was spearheaded by Tony Kushner--the playwright whose own "Homebody/Kabul," set in Afghanistan in 1998, opened this week in New York.

Pire, a Cuban American who is best known to the L.A. theater community as the solo actor in Guillermo Reyes' "Men on the Verge of a His-Panic Breakdown," not only directed the readings but also was one of the primary actors in them.

The intense media coverage of the terrorist attacks and their aftermath didn't give any of the playwrights second thoughts about whether they had anything fresh to contribute, Pire said. "A lot of the work is in response to the media. The media is almost another character."

The name "New Millennium" arose from Pire's belief that "Sept. 11 is the mark of the new millennium. Dark as it may be, this really is the new age."

Shida Pegahia in a chador woven from small American flags, designed by Gita Kashabi.

Shida Pegahia in a chador woven from small American flags, designed by Gita Kashabi.

A few of the writers directly addressed the events at the World Trade Center. Shahid Nadeem, a Pakistani playwright and director who has been working recently in L.A., wrote "Trapped," about two men who are caught on the 23rd floor of one of the towers, unable to move. One of the men, who has a Middle Eastern name, borrows the other's cell phone to call his wife and uses up the battery in the process. As the scene ended Thursday, rescue still wasn't assured.

In "Twin Telepathy," Nzingha Clarke wrote about a woman who sees her twin sister in live footage from the World Trade Center. Padraic Duffy's "Shake a Tree to Shake a Tree" was a much more oblique look at an office worker who is inferred to be in one of the Twin Towers, while his wife works in the other.

Other writers' works were set in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.

Al Austin's "Muslim" takes place in an L.A. health club, where one of the weightlifters wears a T-shirt that says "Muslim," to the consternation of the man who's spotting him as he works out. A Florida shopping mall, shortly after the attacks, is the setting for Marc Ostrick's "The Scene," involving a Jewish mother, her adult son and a fellow shopper who's a Sikh. David Lewison's "Peace" is a monologue set at least a decade in the future, when all cities have been either destroyed or simply dispersed so as to break up possible targets.

Another group of writers addressed Middle Eastern subjects in general, without particular references to Sept. 11.

Joshua Zide's "On Borders" depicts an Iraqi Jew who is stopped at the Tel Aviv airport. Barbara Genovese's "Toy Soldiers" is about a 10-year-old boy who's drafted into military duty. Two pieces by Heather Raffoare about Iraqi women, the Persian Gulf War and the subsequent sanctions against Iraq.

Although visual design was bare-bones throughout most of the evening, "Chador," the opening monologue by Gita Khashabi, featured Shida Pegahi wearing a chador woven from small American flags.

Comic relief was provided by Lory Tatoulian's appearance as an Armenian American "coffee cup fortuneteller" who works at Zankou Chicken.

Pire said he doubts many of the pieces will be further developed, but he hopes to put together another evening of similar material.