THEATER : Never More Than a Stranger : Playwright Shishir Kurup is constantly grappling with identity and roots. His new work sheds light on the lives and concerns of the little-known Arab community in L.A.
“My life is not separate from my work,” declares Shishir Kurup. “My art is who I am. I’m constantly struggling with assimilation. Who am I? Where am I going? Why? These questions are being asked by the non-professionals in ‘Ghurba.’ They’re the same questions I ask myself, every day.”
Answers may be forthcoming Thursday, when Kurup’s multimedia show about local Arab-Americans premieres at UCLA’s MacGowan Hall. “Ghurba” (pronounced “Hor-bah”), a Los Angeles Festival presentation written and directed by Kurup, draws on true stories about immigration--a familiar subject to the 31-year-old Bombay-born, Africa-raised, American-educated performance artist-playwright.
“I’m fascinated with being an immigrant,” Kurup says.
But today in his Westside home, Kurup again feels like a legal alien suspended between cultures. Will the professional and non-professional performers work together? Can his diverse cast of Christians and Muslims get along? He squints at a computer screen, frantically seeking answers to narrative problems that emerged during rehearsals.
“I’m a little bit more than two weeks away from production,” Kurup says with a sigh. “You can get a little overwhelmed. Have I lost sight of where I am? As an artist, where am I? I’m adding, constantly adding and cutting.”
The pressure to succeed is palpable. His partner and frequent collaborator Page Leong, co-founder of their Raven Group multidisciplinary company, hovers protectively in the background. “Ghurba” represents a major career opportunity. Although Kurup has performed his solo shows throughout the United States--most notably, “Assimilation,” about his personal immigration experiences, at George C. Wolfe’s Festival of New Voices in New York’s Public Theatre--”Ghurba” is a much more ambitious undertaking.
Cornerstone Theater Company selected Kurup as the first outsider in its seven-year history to direct one of its productions. The Santa Monica-based ensemble, famed for integrating amateurs and professionals in multicultural community collaborations, had been searching for a guest director for its 21st production. Their most recent endeavor was a collaboration with residents of Pacoima to create the bilingual musical “Rushing Waters.” But a new approach was required for the closed Arab-American communities of Southern California.
“Some Arabs resisted and asked why don’t we do our own work?” said anthropologist Fadwa El Guindi, Egyptian-born member of the L.A. Festival steering committee. “Why should Cornerstone come in and do it?”
“Ever since the Gulf War, we’ve wanted to do a piece with the local Arab community,” recalled Cornerstone Managing Director Stephen Gutwillig. “We’re interested in theater as a tool to bring people together from different communities. We are by design nomadic. In Shishir, we chose someone with a sensibility matching our own.”
Kurup’s qualifying credentials include more than theater degrees and teaching drama at UCLA and UC Irvine. His sensibility indeed fit the culturally diverse Cornerstone aesthetic, as well as the festival’s theme of “Home, Place and Memory.”
“I have this thing of always being from somewhere else,” he explains. “What are your roots? What does that mean? Some of these issues I’ve had to deal with my whole life. How do you maintain one’s culture while assimilating and becoming a new person? In India, I was a creature who had never seen an African. In Africa, I saw few Europeans. In the States, I was often the only person of color.”
Once drafted by Cornerstone, Kurup quickly learned that “there is no such thing as an Arab-American community in Los Angeles. It’s too spread out. So we decided to deal with it as culture.”
Cornerstone joined forces with the Arab arts organization Al-Funun Al-Arabiya, founded by El Guindi. The Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department provided $32,550. The California Community Foundation gave $10,000. A National Endowment for the Arts grant came to $10,000. Support also arrived from Arab-American Television, which promised free advertising. The remainder was donated by individuals, until the $100,000 budget was in place.
“Cornerstone would have been in a desert and a mazeway without us,” El Guindi observed. “It’s like sending an American into an Arab desert--everyone will run to their tents. It’s a non-community, and they tend to be suspicious of outsiders because of the political situation.”
But overcoming such reluctance is the key to Cornerstone’s artistic vision. “This is not just a play,” Kurup enthuses. “Cornerstone goes into a community to learn something about that community, yes, but also about themselves. Plunge into the multicultural milieu. We’re trying to make this a mixture of performance and play. There’s a lot of singing. It’s fragmented, allegorical, an on-the-road story.”
“Ghurba” is a derivative of the Arabic word for stranger, says Kurup. “But in Hindi the word means beggar. There can be no precise translation from Arabic to English. We can only talk around the word. It means longing for home and, at the same time, estrangement. One can be at home but still long for home. We can be here but call somewhere else our true land. To me, the title asks, ‘What does it mean to say home?’ ”
For that answer, Kurup interviewed numerous Arab-Americans--Moroccan, Kuwaiti, Arme nian, Egyptian and Lebanese, among others. He’d ask: “What was it like when you first came here? Do you want to go back?”
Although similar, his approach is not identical to Anna Deavere Smith’s technique, which used interviews to tell the story of the Los Angeles riots in the Mark Taper Forum’s recent production “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.” Kurup wove oral histories into a complex tapestry, then added fragments from the sayings of Jesus, the poetry of Sufi mystic Rabia Al-Adawiya and the writings of Palestinians Mahmoud Darwish and Edward Said. Even a W. B. Yeats play, “Purgatory,” has been mixed into Kurup’s text, alongside Arabic music and dance. Finally, he added some non-professionals. He set the piece in a desert oasis resembling a pre-urban Los Angeles.
“L.A. is a hybrid future,” Kurup emphasizes. “As an artist, I’m trying to blend its many aspects. I really think Los Angeles is at a defining moment. We’re at a precipice. We can go either way. Some amazing things could come out of this amount of fear. But if everybody doesn’t speak Spanish also, and if we don’t learn about what all these different cultures are about, I think we will have what we had last year (riots). That’s where theater here can make a difference.”
While a child in India, Kurup’s formative theater exposure came in Hindu religious pageants. He recalls a festival where flocks of ravens, summoned by priests’ birdlike cries, descended to share rice with the pilgrims. But southern India’s economy was dire. When Kurup was 5, his mother left for Africa to work as a nurse. Six months later, he joined her in Kenya and lived in the 2,000-year-old city of Mombasa.
“Africa seemed like a paradise,” Kurup remembers. “Mombasa was an island. You had Arab, African, Indian and some Europeans living there.”
But when he was 12, his family again migrated in search of “a better life,” and Kurup experienced an even more severe culture shock than Africa: Louisville, Ky. Suddenly, the vast majority were white. A lone Indian named Shishir Kurup endured “ridiculous,” if sincere, questions: “Did you swing from trees? Did you live in a hut?”
“I had to rush through my assimilation,” he says, his eyes drifting back to the computer screen, his fingers nervously tapping the keyboard. “I wanted to fit in. I worked very hard at becoming American--whatever that means. Today it means very different things from what it did in 1974. This is what my play is also trying to deal with in a metaphorical and/or allegorical way. What does it mean to be an American today?”
After Louisville, his family moved north to Chicago. Three years of Chicago’s winters led the Kurup family to unanimously agree: “This snow thing doesn’t work.” They spread out a map of the United States, looking for a tropical climate. His parents chose Florida, partially because they expected Kurup to become a doctor and wanted access to the state’s medical colleges.
“I’ve always known I didn’t want to be a doctor,” Kurup says with a laugh. “But my parents planned that career, even though I couldn’t stand the sight of blood.” Besides, in high school, Kurup had discovered his first taste of theater. He became the lead guitarist for a rock band called “Precious Metal,” soon renamed, “Raven.”
In college, he quit pre-med and tried psychology. But by then, the compulsion to perform had seized him. “I realized I was living a lie. It was such an emancipatory day when I told my Mom that I couldn’t be a doctor.” He changed his major to theater. When it came time to select a graduate school, he considered Juilliard and Yale, but finally chose the University of California at San Diego. “I chose UCSD in part for the weather. But I also wanted to go somewhere where nobody knows me and I could reinvent myself.”
During his three years of graduate study, Kurup spent a residency in Japan, studying under director Tadashi Suzuki. The theories and martial-arts-influenced acting techniques of Suzuki became a primary aesthetic. He learned that “cultural exchange begins with misunderstanding.” At UCSD, he worked with director Anne Bogart, adding her dance techniques to his perspective. When he saw Peter Brook’s version of the Hindu legend, “Mahabharata,” Kurup added minimalism to his aesthetic.
After graduating in 1987, Kurup chose to work in L.A., and not because of the climate. “I see this city as the next Paris or New York. We’ve got all these sort of performance art movements, these different cultures living side by side.”
Here the recent graduate briefly became director of Los Angeles Theatre Center’s Asian American Theater Project. But in a few months LATC closed. From that disappointment emerged The Raven Group, his multidisciplinary, multiethnic company. In four years, Kurup has written, directed and performed a number of solo shows, including, “Exile: Ruminations on a Reluctant Martyr,” inspired by Salman Rushdie.
Kurup also chose Los Angeles to be close to Hollywood. “I always wanted to make films, too. Growing up, I saw theatrical pageantry in the temple and American movies at the cinema. Ultimately, I’d like to have a repertory company of actors who would work on a piece onstage, then completely revise it on film. I don’t want to make movies here, necessarily. You take half-a-million dollars to India, you can have 30 times the value. India has great cinematographers, amazing equipment, and the best light to shoot in.”
Besides, Hollywood has been very good to Kurup. He portrayed a taxicab company owner in “Coneheads” and was cast in “Beverly Hills 90210” and “Nurses.”
“In both (shows) I’m a doctor,” Kurup added, marveling at the odd twists of fate. “But in ‘Nurses’ I’m a fake who’s really a pizza delivery guy. So now I tell my mom, ‘See, I can play doctor.’ ”
But now it’s time to direct. His partner, Leong, enters Kurup’s study and announces that they must leave for the rehearsal. “I think it’s a very freeing place to think that the world is not stable,” he says happily, waving the reporter out the door.
Such sentiments don’t dissipate El Guindi’s anxiety: “I just got the script today,” she said a day after the Kurup interview. “Shishir was entirely Cornerstone’s choice. I feel as an anthropologist a little worried when people who aren’t Arab try to do a piece about Arab identity. It takes years to just scratch the surface of the culture.
“But it’s all experimental, in my opinion,” she said. “Even if the work doesn’t reflect the Arab reality, it will produce a dialogue and generate debate about how Arabs can present themselves on stage and to the American public.”
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.