Monday, February 22, 2010
"Self (the remix)" is a spoken-word, hip-hop play that mixes together stories, movement and music to tell the tale of an American child of Iranian and Guatemalan immigrants growing up in California in the 1970s and 80s in the shadow of the Iranian Hostage Crisis. Acclaimed playwright and performer Robert Farid Karimi, accompanied with a soundscape created by Filipino DJ D Double, tells a "remixed" autobiographical tale of a boy struggling to learn about manhood, nationhood, and neighborhood with the voices and music of his environment helping him along.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): Mix, remix, mixed messages and caught in the mix. Storyteller and performance artist Robert Karimi knows a lot about the mixing and melting of different cultures. He's the first generation child of Iranian and Guatemalan immigrants to the U.S. and, what's more, he started school in California during the Iranian hostage crisis. Robert Karimi has worked his personal story of mixed signals and mixed heritage into a performance piece with music that's opening at San Diego's Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company this week. It's called "self (the remix)." Robert, welcome to These Days.
ROBERT KARIMI (Performance Artist): Thank you. I’m happy to be here.
CAVANAUGH: Robert is joined by Dave Dimaano, also known as DJ D Double, who provides the music for "self (the remix)." Hi. So, Robert, tell me about the title of your show, “self (the remix).” How does it represent what you’re doing in the show?
KARIMI: Well, it’s the whole idea that I believe that we are the sum of all our parts, like we take our images, our ideas, our experiences, and we mix and remix like as if we have an inner deejay inside of us and that our life is a soundtrack. And at every moment, we remix to whatever serves us at that moment. Maybe we’re in school and we’re trying to do a test or maybe we’re trying to ask someone on a first date. We call, we recall what we need and what experiences we need so that we can survive through life. And this idea of having our inner deejay—and that’s why there’s a deejay in the show—our inner deejay helps us, you know, spin, remix, fuse and even blend what we need to make it as a person.
CAVANAUGH: Tell us a story of your parents.
KARIMI: Well, both of – my mom is from Guatemala and my father’s from Iran. And they both met here in – Well, not here in San Diego but in San – in the San Francisco Bay area where I was born. And they met in English school. And both of them were reluctant immigrants. They weren’t necessarily going to come here but they ended up here in the seven – in the late sixties. And met each other, the only common language was English, and got married a year later.
CAVANAUGH: What’s the reaction when you tell people about your joint cultural identity, Iranian and Guatemalan? What’s the reaction you get?
KARIMI: Well, part of that is in the show, and it’s hard to show you on radio because it really is just like that. It really is just…
CAVANAUGH: They don’t know what to do with it?
KARIMI: They don’t. I mean, you say Iranian-Guatemalan to people and they’re – I mean, they get black and white, they get, oh, I’m half – I’m half Asian and white, like they get that. Iranian and Guatemalan, I mean, you could almost hear the sound. Okay, here’s – this is good for radio. (makes explosion noise) You know, that little explosion in their heads because, oh, how did they hook up? That’s always, how did they hook up? What did they do? You know, as if, you know, they come from like two alien races. And so, you know, that’s usually what I get and I thought in 2009, in the, you know, in the era – 2010, whoa we are…
KARIMI: In the 2010, in the era of Obama, we would have a different reaction but, no, almost always it’s still the same.
CAVANAUGH: It’s still people have no place to put that information. That’s so interesting.
CAVANAUGH: And I’m wondering, when did you start to get the idea when you were a kid that this was a different kind of cultural identity to have?
KARIMI: I think it was – I mean, I grew up in a primarily Filipino and Latino neighborhood in the San Francisco Bay area in a town called Union City. And there, I just, you know, you realize – you’re like, I’m the only non-Filipino. I’m the only non-Mexican. And you start realizing just by being with others how you’re ‘other’ and how you have different traditions. And that when your dad starts making, you know, he can’t find unleavened bread and so he uses the flour tortilla from the, you know, from the tortilla factory to make, you know, his Persian dishes, and you’re the only guy that likes, you know, food with yogurt in it, you start realizing, you know, whoa, you know, you’re eating black beans and yogurt? What’s up, bro? What’re you doing? So it’s like, it’s that kind of thing. It starts really simply like that with food. It starts with, you know, when your parents start fighting. They’re fighting in three languages. You know, when you – when I learned about how to – I learned chess from my father, it was not chess, it was al’ajedrez. Just going through three languages, three cultures, and it was just second nature for me. And it wasn’t like – it wasn’t a big deal. It was just how it was.
CAVANAUGH: So – and since it’s second nature to you and has been since you were a child, does the fact that it always comes up against people’s silence, does – how does that – how do you deal with that as a grown-up person?
KARIMI: Well, I mean, I think what it is, is that I realize that they haven’t done that homework for their own cultures because I just don’t feel folks are one – are monocultural. I mean, when you – I’m – I have – I think of it now as a luxury and a privilege that I can know that I’m Iranian-Guatemalan but if I look back, there’s even more. There’s Italian, there’s Mayan, there’s – And discovering those relatives, those stories, those histories, I realize that I’m mixed race and I think everyone else could really, in theory, think of themselves as mixed race if they really got down and in touch with those stories, those ideas, those people. And many times I think when I blow people’s minds, race is like an afterthought for them. Culture is an afterthought. They’re not really thinking about where they came from, they’re only thinking about where they’re going. And sometimes when you do that, you lose sight of your roots and who you are. And even though you may be going forward very quickly, it’s – there’s nothing underneath it. And, you know, that’s – And that’s what the role of "self (the remix)" is, I feel, is to get people to think about, yeah, you maybe be thinking about the future but you got to think about the present moment and your past as well all at the same time. It’s like a mix.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Robert Karimi about his performance piece "self (the remix)", which is being presented at the Mo’olelo Performing Arts Center from February 24th through March 21st. It’s at the 10th Avenue Theatre. And with DJ D Double, you’re going to be giving us just a little taste of your performance, if you would.
KARIMI: Yes. Yes, we are. So this piece is called “Parents Fairy Tale” and it’s from "self (the remix)." So here we go. Ready? Here we go.
(audio of Karimi and DJ D Double performing “Parents Fairy Tale” from "self (the remix)")
CAVANAUGH: Thank you. That’s Robert Karimi performing from "self (the remix)" with the help of Dave Dimaano also known as DJ D Double. Really, really amazing.
KARIMI: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you both so much.
DIMAANO: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: I wonder, you kind of end on this idea of mixing the religion.
CAVANAUGH: Was that a big part of your life growing up?
KARIMI: It was just a given. I was – You know, I grew up in a Catholic neighborhood so – so there is it, you know, like your dad’s Muslim and he has a Koran underneath his pillow and, you know, he was not very – he didn’t prosthelytize, you know. It was like that’s his religion, that’s her religion, and we’re going to, you know, you’re going to just grow up whatever the culture around us is. You’re going to learn about it, and there it is. It just is. And it’s interesting because they never tried to push either one on me. It just became part of what’s going to serve us best to acculturate here in the United States. You know, what’s going to help us survive. But my father never hid that he was Muslim. There was no pork in the house. He would take time to pray. Like I knew it. I saw it. He practiced. My mother practiced. It wasn’t until they divorced that things got a little different because in Catholicism in the seventies, if you divorced, you’re excommunicated.
KARIMI: So I – My relationship with the Catholic Church started to get really weird. Like wait, my mom’s out but I’m in? Like, whoa, how do I get to church, you know? This is crazy. And then there were no mosques in California at the time, you know, for my father so to me it was like Islam was a bedroom religion, you know?
KARIMI: ‘Cause he’s praying in the bedroom.
CAVANAUGH: In the bedroom, right.
KARIMI: Yeah, it’s like – So I had a really different view of people who really – they wanted to worship because they wanted to do it not because they had to go somewhere to do it.
CAVANAUGH: You – in "self (the remix)," you – there’s this idea that you had to in a sense hide or – being Iranian during the Iranian hostage crisis. People wanted you to hide that fact. And I’m wondering, how did that – do you think that highlighted your need to really push forward your cultural identity as you became an adult, as you became an artist?
KARIMI: Well, I think it’s interesting because like I opened for a comic, Maz Jobrani, once in Washington, D.C. and he did this joke about how he, you know, when he’s Iranian – I’m totally misquoting him but like how he changes his accent to be Latino. But, I mean, like that was my life. I could do that. Like I’m fluent in Spanish. Anytime someone said, Karimi, what’s that? Oh, I’m like, oh, Karimi, it’s Mexican. It’s Guatemalan. It’s that kind of thing of I would switch over again because it’s helped me survive. And also that’s why I’m doing this piece and why I think it’s important for people to come see it at Mo’olelo in the 10th Avenue Theatre. Why it’s so important is because, you know, this backlash towards Iranians didn’t just start. It started like 30 years ago to – on an 8-year-old. And, you know, it’s really – You know, we have all these theories about history and politics but there are humans behind these things. And I had to hide. You know, I had to hide because there were people, you know, wanting to physically harm us. There were people calling us on the phone. I mean, I wasn’t Malcolm X, I wasn’t some big political person. We were just Iranian and people knew it and it wasn’t just one race going against us, it was a lot of folks because, you know, the Iranian hostage crisis, which still blows me away. I go into – I go do work with young people and there are young people who’ve never heard of it before because the Iranian hostage crisis was our 9/11 at the time. We were listening to it every day on the television, and the idea that kids could be 17, 16 and not know about it blew me away, that the idea that even 9/11 could be erased from our histories. And so that’s why it was important that I do this play, and that’s why it’s important to talk about this idea that, yeah, I did have to hide myself and that’s even times – any time there’s some terrorist thing or like goes Code Red. I mean, when the Timothy McVeigh thing happened, like people were making jokes at my work about it. Like, oh-ho-ho, it’s probably your cousins. Ah, ha-ha…
CAVANAUGH: Umm. Umm-hmm.
KARIMI: And I was like, uhh.
KARIMI: And I was like, uh, no, man, I’m Guate – You know, I wanted to say that but I stopped saying that. Like I stopped saying I was just Guatemalan for years. It wasn’t until I was like 16, I said it again, that my other half – You know, it was like a coming out almost because I really – It was really – I – You know, you were asking me what people looked like when I said I was Iranian-Guatemalan. Well, when I just started the word Iranian, I would – like I would get things like, oh, but you’re so nice. You’re cool. You’re so ni – Really? But they have no idea what that means. And so that idea, I mean, even Guatemala, it’s like – it’s always – I always have to like do this thing and people on radio, they could look and imagine my fore – what is this? My forefinger and my thumb…
KARIMI: I would say, this is Mexico and underneath this area is Guat – like people didn’t know Guatemala. Like for years, especially where I lived in California, I would think they would know but they would like confuse it for the island of Guam. And I’m like, no, we’re not surrounded by water, okay?
CAVANAUGH: Same letter. Same letter.
KARIMI: I know. I mean, the emcee last night at some thing we did called it Guatemalian. I was like, no, man.
KARIMI: I love you but, no. Come on now.
CAVANAUGH: Now you’re going to perform for us live again. I want to let everybody know that you’re doing that in the KPBS studios right now. And this is an excerpt from your show and it features the Pledge of Allegiance.
KARIMI: Yes. It does. Oh, I get to go. Oh, I’m going.
CAVANAUGH: You get to go.
KARIMI: Here we go.
(audio of Karimi performing an excerpt from his show "self (the remix)")
CAVANAUGH: That’s Robert Karimi, a part of his show, "self (the remix)" that’s coming to the 10th Avenue Theatre presented by Mo’olelo Performing Arts. And the deejay is DJ D Double. And thank you both so much for that.
KARIMI: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: You say that each of these shows is different, although you’ve been performing this particular piece for a long time. So how do you do that, Robert?
KARIMI: We basically – we listen in to what’s modern times. I mean, like, you know, for those, you know, even sneak peak for KPBS, you know, you never know. Like even something like happens to Tiger Woods or President Obama could be in the show. You know, we keep it modern that way. In addition, we listen to what’s on the radio. I have a deejay here. We remix and mix and the reason why we do this is it’s what I – it’s like my personal belief of how we create the self. At different times, we change. You know, we’re never the same person twice, so never should this show be the same way twice. I love it when people come to the show two or three times and, yes, it has happened where they come to see how we’ve changed it even a little. Some people have seen it in two different cities because we really try and make it geared towards the city we’re in just to, one, because I really believe that theatre should engage the audience because they’re coming to see us, they’re giving us – You know, that’s a gift to have an audience, I think. As much as it’s a gift to give to an audience, it’s a gift to have someone to listen. So I like to give them something to keep them involved and keep them engaged throughout the whole show.
CAVANAUGH: Now you’re a former Poetry Slam champion.
CAVANAUGH: And I notice how really tightly you work with your – with the deejay. And I wonder, the rhythms and the timing that you have, the two of you, how important is that to the show? I mean, that you’re on the same page, you’re doing it completely in rhythm.
KARIMI: It’s – it’s just like having another actor onstage. We have to be together. I mean, even our lighting person, everything’s live, the lighting. Our lighting person, Cathy Maxwell, and, you know, together with D Double and me, we’re just a whole team in which it’s just, you know, you’re seeing a actual live performance. And the timing comes from just listening. And, again, this is, you know, I’m modeling my behavior for the audience, kind of thing, you know. It’s this idea of, you know, I listen in. We listen in to each other. And we’re constantly – if he were to scratch or do something different, I will change.
KARIMI: You know, and I don’t know – Like if the equipment goes out, I’m ready to go because it’s a live performance and I think that’s the beauty of it. That’s the difference from film, you know, is that you get to witness the accidents but out of the accidents, even in our own lives, we can find a joy and we can find power in that. And that’s – that’s what we do.
CAVANAUGH: We’re out of time.
CAVANAUGH: I know. I know. But I want to tell everybody, "self (the remix)," presented by Mo'olelo Performing Arts runs from February 24th through March 21st at the 10th Avenue Theatre. And Robert Karimi and DJ D Double, thank you. I really appreciate it.
KARIMI: Thank you so much, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much for coming in.
DIMAANO: Thank you very much.
CAVANAUGH: If you’d like to comment on anything you hear on These Days, go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. Coming up, actor and comedian John Leguizamo as These Days continues on KPBS.