’Rights of Passage’ Opens NCTC’s Pride Season
Where’s the best place on Earth to be gay or lesbian or bi or trans? San Francisco would likely do well in a poll, or the United States if we are talking about entire nations. But as the creators of "Rights of Passage" traveled around the world researching their new play, they found that Americans are prone to myopia when there’s a rainbow in their line of sight.
"When we first started this project five years ago, we had this weird notion that all gay people want the Western version of being gay," said Ed Decker, who co-authored "Rights of Passage" with husband Robert Leone. "What we realized in talking to all these people from different cultures is that they basically just want to be who they are within their own cultural heritage."
That is the case with the character Wayan, a young Hindu man living in Bali who wants to find a way for his family, community, and religion to accept him as he is. Decker and Leone have focused their global story on Wayan, and the repercussions of his actions are echoed in scenes in which LGBT issues arise in other cultures. "Because these characters are composites of people in so many different circumstances, they have pretty potent souls and emotional lives," Decker said. "It’s been a lot to compress into two hours."
"Rights of Passage" launches a new season this week at New Conservatory Theatre Center, where Decker is founding artistic director. Although this is the 18th Pride season he has helmed, this is his first major go at playwriting, as it is for partner Leone, who works for the Public Health Institute in Oakland. Bali became the centerpiece locale for the play because of their love of the island that they have frequently visited both before and after the idea for the story came into focus.
"It’s visually a stunning place," Leone said, "and the people are quite beautiful, with the Hindu religion integrated into their everyday lives. They are very welcoming, and open to talking about their culture, though they’re not necessarily interested in having you stay for a long time."
As is often the case with the world’s religions, Hindu scripture sends mixed messages in reference to sexuality. "It’s safe to say that their sense of their culture is based on the male, female, and progeny model," Decker said. "But at the same time their mythology includes deities that are both male and female, and there are stories that point to those who understand their dual gender as the sacred among us."
It is not, however, a place of pride parades. "There are gay clubs in the tourist areas," Decker said, "and there are obviously homosexuals in the population, but it is not an open society."
And thus the dilemma for the character Wayan, who believes that Hinduism is about balance, following your own truth, and discovering your purpose in life. And to him, that purpose includes helping his culture to move toward a sexual inclusiveness. "Of course, his family and his village have other ideas about it," Decker said. "This causes a lot of problems."
Decker and Leone worked with director Arturo Catricala to help shape the piece, which employs both Balinese storytelling techniques as well as traditional dramatic interplay. "The production starts off with a folktale told in a shadow play, and that segues into real lives in progress," Decker said. These include lives from many cultures around the world.
"We struggled as to how we would include these other cultures," Leone said, "and decided to have the story of Wayan as the through-line, and from that these other, much shorter pieces become offshoots from the main story. The challenge was how to make the play honest and entertaining, and not like you’re sitting down for a political science lesson."
Decker and Leone began the process by learning from first-hand accounts of LGBT challenges in as many parts of the world as they could. But with budget constraints limiting travel opportunities, Decker and Leone worked with Human Rights Watch and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission to make these personal connections in New York and Europe, as well as from their travels in Southeast Asia.
"In Berlin, for example, I met with folks from the Middle East who had left their countries and were seeking asylum in the EU," Decker said, "and in the Netherlands, I was able to go to a resettlement compound to meet with a young Iranian who had fled his country."
But even among those who had left their homelands in fear was a dream to someday return. "You might think, why would they want that, because their religion and culture are so against them," Leone said. "One person in particular we talked to lived in Banda Aceh [the Indonesian city devastated by the 2004 earthquake and resultant tsunami], and he was from a Muslim family that practiced Sharia law, yet his hope was that he could somehow make his life within that context."
As they spoke a week before previews were to begin, Decker and Leone were coming to grips with the reality of a project five years in gestation now in the birthing room. "We’re dealing with the very nuts and bolts of the thing," Decker said, "like getting over 300 sound and light cues into place. But then, looming in my mind is the responsibility we feel to all the partners and people who have helped us."
Theater, of course, cannot be a headline news service. "But one of the things we learned from all of these activists is that people somehow do not connect beyond the sound-bite," Decker said. "You hear about something horrific, and then another news story comes along that replaces it. Theater has the power to create an emotional as well as an intellectual connection. The hope is that this play could become one more tool in the arsenal for advancing human rights for everyone."
"Rights of Passage" will run Aug. 17-Sept. 16 at New Conservatory Theatre Center. Tickets are $25-$45. Call 861-8972 or go to www.nctcsf.org.