By Rebecca M. Alvin
American composer Ned Rorem has said, "Music is the sole art which evokes nostalgia for the future." The truth of this statement is evident in the plight of the Tibetan people, particularly those living in exile around the world. One such exile, Tsering Dorjee Bawa, is a musician on a mission to share the culture of Tibet with the world in the hopes that it will bring attention to the decimation of that culture at the hands of Chinese invaders.
Bawa, who has been in films like Martin Scorsese’s "Kundun" (1997) and Eric Valli’s "Caravan" (1999), worked with the Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang ("M. Butterfly," "Golden Child") in 2003 to bring the latter’s adaptation of Peter Sis’ children’s book "Tibet Through the Red Box" to its world premiere at the Seattle Children’s Theatre. Now, Bawa is here on the Cape, working with director Noel Carmichael to bring this unique play to audiences at Cape Cod Repertory Theatre, as the play’s musical director. This will be the play’s East Coast premiere.
Carmichael, who directed "Side Show" and "True West" at Cape Rep, says the experience of working on this material has been quite enlightening, challenging her to work in different ways. "I went to NYU ... very Stanislavski, you know, everything’s action and intention," she says. But Bawa’s method is drastically different, much more whimsical, relaxed, and not quite so serious. "It keeps making me check myself every time I think something is so important," she explains.
There is a serious side to all of this, though. Bawa fled Tibet in 1986, and got political asylum in India, where he lived for some time before moving to San Francisco last year. He cannot return to his homeland because of the tensions that exist there between the Chinese, who wish to take control of Tibet, and the Tibetans who would like autonomy.
He studied music and the arts in India, but says he also learned a lot from the West. And all of these things have influenced his work.
"There’s so many things to learn from everybody," he says. "Indian people, they have very good theater... very high quality, but in our Tibetan communities, still we have a very low standard of theater." He says he hopes to learn more and bring a higher level of theater to his community, and to build their appreciation of it as audiences as well.
Sis’ book is actually a memoir. He recounts the tales he heard from his father, who was a filmmaker in the 1950s, working for the Chinese government in Tibet. The young Peter finds the stories magical at first, but as he grows up, he is bored by them. When later in life, his father gives him a red box containing his journal from the time he spent in Tibet, Peter is intrigued and "Tibet Through the Red Box" was written with this new sense of importance.
Hwang’s play, Carmichael tells me, is quite different. "The biggest difference is that the book is written from adult Peter’s perspective reflecting back on his childhood. The play is written purely from 12-year old Peter’s perspective," she explains.
Music is a central part of the play because, according to Bawa, it is central to the nomadic life of Tibet. "Every evening you sing and dance, that’s how you entertain yourself and how you relieve your stress, because the whole day we are working hard, as opposed to here working eight hours," he explains.
In fact, music is such a normal part of the day, that Bawa says it isn’t really seen as a specific skill, as it is here. "There’s no kind of institute for music or art, that’ll never happen in Tibet", he says. "Everybody knows something, so you don’t need to set up a school."
Working at Cape Rep, he admits, is quite different from the experience he had at the Seattle Children’s Theatre, where the production was underwritten by a corporate sponsor, and the budget was quite a bit higher than anything done on the Cape. But Bawa, is happy to be working with the theater, regardless of its economic base.
"For me I’m used to working in very small, even no budget (productions)," he says. "It’s good to do it with your heart, so this production I really enjoy."
Cape Rep has not done a lot of children’s theater in the off-season. Yes, they have outdoor shows for kids in the summer time, but "Tibet Through the Red Box" promises to entertain and enlighten both adults and children in an entirely different way. Carmichael says much of the story includes puppetry, people on stilts and stick-fighting. But also, the authenticity of the music and costumes (which are made with the help of the small local Tibetan community, from materials not generally available here), and the story itself will present a unique experience for adults open to a cultural experience.
Carmichael says the play is not political, although there are political undertones to it because of the time in which it takes places. She sees it as more cultural, but also believes it can be helpful to the plight of Tibetan people. She says "in my mind, the entire piece is a prayer for Tibet and so I hope that just while (the audience) are here in the room with us, whatever religion they are, they will engage in that prayer."
She adds, "theater can be its most political, just by doing work that we are unfamiliar with... just by working on this process, I feel like I have grown in awareness and I think that the audience will either have to completely ignore the experience, or they will have the same growth."