An Anne Arundel Community College professor explores religious and ethnic stereotypes in his new play, which has its debut tonight.

Making cultural connections

April 01, 2005|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

Shree Iyengar defies preconceived notions about the likely pastimes of a scientist.

While the Severna Park resident has taught chemistry at Anne Arundel Community College for years, he also wrote and published stories and novels in his native language, Tamil, and English.

"Science and art, they definitely have one thing in common, and that is imagination," he said.

Now, the 58-year-old engages his imagination to explore religious and ethnic stereotypes in modern America in the debut of Namaste, Neighbor!, his third English-language play.

The playwright's fascination with theater and movies began while growing up in Chennai, a southern Indian city formerly known as Madras. Community theater flourished, so young Iyengar immersed himself in drama. He also acted in a theater group run by his father.

He maintained his interest in drama while studying chemistry in India and earning his doctorate in organic chemistry at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He and other students would gather to watch imported films at homes or libraries on rented projectors.

Iyengar came to Maryland in 1975 for postgraduate work at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He then took a teaching position at the community college.

These days, Iyengar has scaled back his course load, teaching one chemistry course online. Primarily, he directs the college's effort to improve students' success in the classroom. He also does higher education consulting.

In 1993, Iyengar founded the S.G. Theater Group Inc. and directs many of its performances. The theater group is named after Sivaji Ganesan, a legendary actor in the Tamil film industry based in Chennai - or "Koliwood," as some call it, a play off the "Bollywood" nickname for the Indian film mecca, Bombay.

Iyengar finds that writing for American audiences presents challenges beyond simple translation.

Tamil plays are structured differently than western theater, Iyengar said. Action transpires scene by scene, unlike in Western theater, where longer scenes are organized into acts. For example, Iyengar said his Tamil plays can have as many as five scenes and an intermission, whereas his English-language plays consist of two acts, each with two scenes.

By conforming to the familiar American format, "you can get better reactions from the audience," he said.

As in his earlier English-language efforts, Arranged Marriage and The Hope Diamond, Iyengar relies on humor as the vehicle for social commentary in his work.

Namaste, Neighbor! explores the interactions of an Indian-American family as they move to a Maryland suburb and meet their American neighbors. Iyengar explains that the Sanskrit word namaste is commonly coupled with folded hands and a quick bow of the head to greet people with respect.

The playwright was inspired by the change in the American cultural climate after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. They brought back a memory from his stay in California in the 1970s when people, assuming he was Iranian, refused to sell him gasoline during the fuel shortage.

He said he wrote the piece in about four weeks last year.

The propensity to jump to conclusions based on prejudice is not unique to the United States, he said. He sees lessons for Americans in the conflict between South Asia's Muslims and Hindus. He is a Hindu, though, he says, "not a radical one."

"There is a message for humanity here," he said. "Why do people let religion ruin humanity?"

Two of Iyengar's cast members perform with his theater group. Three others are staff members from the college whom he enticed into reading the play.

Gina Serio, who plays Judy King, a neighbor in the play, said she liked the play's approach for the topic.

"It makes it more real for people, to look at them in a different way," Serio said.

Others commended Iyengar as a skillful storyteller.

"He makes good characters," said Marjorie Pearsall-Groenwald, a part-time biology professor and member of the Namaste cast.

The production is sponsored in part by the Cultural Arts Foundation of Anne Arundel County and the Cultural Events Committee of Anne Arundel Community College.

Namaste, Neighbor! has its debut at 8 tonight at AACC's Pascal Center for the Performing Arts. Another show will be held at 2 p.m. tomorrow. Tickets are $10 for general admission, $8 for seniors or AACC staff members, and $5 for students or children ages 6 to 12. To purchase tickets: 410-777-2457.

The Chesapeake Arts Center also will hold a performance in its Studio Theater, 194 Hammonds Lane, Brooklyn Park, at 8 p.m. on April 16. For more information, call 410-636-6597.

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