Building a bridge, word by word
Menlo Park playwright Margy Kahn hopes to further cultural understanding in work premiered at the Pear Avenue Theatre
Margy Kahn has been enthralled by language for almost as long as she can remember.
From writing parodies and plays in elementary school, to choosing linguistics as her field of study in college, she has kept an alert ear open to the nuances of how people express themselves as they interact with each other and the world.
So it comes as no surprise that, even as she has pursued a range of careers outside the field of writing — from software development decades ago to teaching and music performance in the present — Ms. Kahn, a longtime Menlo Park resident, has continued writing as an avocation.
Local playgoers will have a chance to experience Ms. Kahn's latest project when the Pear Avenue Theatre in Mountain View premieres "Familiar Strangers," which will be performed from March 2 through 18, with a preview on March 1.
"Familiar Strangers" is Ms. Kahn's first full-length play, but she is not a stranger to Pear audiences. The theater has staged five of her one-act plays over the years through its Pear Slices festivals.
The new play reflects Ms. Kahn's deep appreciation of Persian culture as it explores relationships among Iranian immigrants living in Los Angeles in 1991. It is set during the Iranian festival of "No Rooz" — New Day — which is the first day of spring and also the Persian new year.
As happens with many immigrant families, there are cultural conflicts between generations, represented by Massoumeh, who arrived in L.A. with husband and daughter before the 1979 revolution in Iran, and Donya, now a teenager shaped by an American childhood.
The family had been split 12 years earlier when Massoumeh's husband, Ali, returned to Iran to help in the revolution to depose the shah. But the tension between mother and daughter over cultural issues is intensified by the unexpected return of Ali, who introduces still more "sturm und drang" into the equation.
The drama of "Familiar Strangers" is tempered by Ms. Kahn's trademark humorous touch. "All my plays have humor — they have to," she said in a recent interview. "I could never write a Bergman film."
The play is being co-directed by Jeanie K. Smith and the Pear's artistic director, Diane Tasca.
Although she has long been interested in playwriting and the theater, Ms. Kahn got a powerful dose of big-time stagecraft as a high school student when she volunteered for the Centerstage theater in Baltimore, which "introduced me to Beckett, Genet, Albee," and other greats, she says. "It was a revelation for me."
Ms. Kahn's plays are character-driven, she says. Although she admires the work of many of the theater world's Olympians, such as Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee, "I don't write like that," she says. "I don't write poetically; I write in the vernacular."
That preference may have something to do with her work as a linguist, which was also instrumental to her exposure to the Persian culture she takes so much pleasure from.
Pursuing linguistics — a broad field — while in college, she ultimately narrowed her focus to the study of the Kurdish language. That led her to a one-year stay in northwestern Iran in 1974-75.
When she returned for a summer in 1978, revolutionary flames were being fanned by opponents of the shah, and anti-American sentiment was high because of the years of meddling by the United States government in Iranian affairs. But she continued to meet and form bonds with the people, and developed a deep understanding of the anger many felt toward the U.S.
"Most Americans knew nothing about (the shah's) history of repression and torture, or how he came to power in 1953 with the help of the CIA," she says. As the American hostage crisis of 1979 unfolded, she was deeply troubled by that lack of understanding, evident in both the media and Americans in general, which helped lead to the demonization of Iranians overseas and in the U.S. immigrant community.
Decades later, in writing "Familiar Strangers," Ms. Kahn says she was hoping "to serve as a bridge for Americans to Iranian culture." That culture, she notes, is not well known by her fellow countrymen: "Many Americans equate Arab and Persian cultures, while those two cultures couldn't be more different.
"While we have no trouble differentiating the cultures of Christian Europe, we tend to lump the cultures of vast areas of the Middle East together. For our shared future on this planet, I think it is critical we understand some of the differences."
Ms. Kahn adds that, given the richness of Persian culture — including its music and cuisine — "there is great enjoyment to be had from this process."
In addition to her work as a playwright, Ms. Kahn wrote a memoir in 1980 about her year of working with the Kurds in Iran, and she continues to write short stories and other fiction.
When she moved to California in 1979, she went to work for Hewlett-Packard Corp., applying her expertise in linguistics in speech recognition and synthesis work. She found some satisfaction in the work, "but it wasn't enough for me," she says. "It wasn't feeding this (artistic) side of me." So she left that job.
Long interested in music, she took up the harp — not a predictable choice for someone in her 30s. But within four years, she was performing with the Redwood Symphony, a volunteer orchestra based on the Peninsula. She now teaches the harp and performs as a freelancer.
She also teaches English as a Second Language, a project she's been devoted to for years. "All my life I have been fascinated by the people who choose or who are forced to choose to cross cultural boundaries," she says.
"My linguistic research on Kurdish was about loan words and linguistic borrowing. My fiction has also focused on this."
Her current projects involve writing a young-adult novel, and expanding "The Packrat Gene," a one-act staged by the Pear. Ms. Kahn says the work is about a woman trying to move her aging, packrat mother into assisted living, while her daughter, a budding packrat herself, fights her mother's efforts. The middle-generation character is the "anti-packrat," her creator says.
"Familiar Strangers" runs March 2 through 18 at the Pear Avenue Theatre, 1220 Pear Ave., Unit K, Mountain View. Tickets: $15-$30. March 1 preview: pay what you can. Go to thepear.org or call 254-1148 for tickets.