The Very Decency of Paula Vogel’s “Indecent”

Paula Vogel’s Indecent is a play about our past, present, and future; it is a play about the many ways society judges its people; it is a play about GLBT rights; it is a play about the good and bad of humanity; but it is also a love story—a love for theater and the transformative powers the theater holds for audiences and players alike.

Structured as a play within a play, Indecent retells the history of Sholem Asch’s 1907 Yiddish drama, God of Vengeance. After touring the world to critical acclaim, and at its Broadway debut at the Apollo Theater on 42nd Street, Asch’s work was shut down in 1923 for obscenity; all the actors were arrested given the drama’s exploration of same-sex love. Asch’s work is pinned against the backdrop of anti-Semitism—additionally, general anti-immigration sentiments—in the United States. So largely, Vogel’s Indecent illustrates the ways in which the oppressed maintain their identities and dignity when pushed to the margins.

Interestingly, Asch’s play is as relevant today as it was, then, when it toured the world. And so Vogel’s prism-view of God of Vengeance refracts the very essence of today with incredible clarity and precision. Vogel states:

I didn’t anticipate that Indecent would be as relevant today as it is; we are witnessing an upheaval of fear, xenophobia, homophobia, and, yes, anti-Semitism. We are in the midst of the strongest white nationalism since the 1920s when American borders were closed to immigrants. In this moment of time we must say that we are all Muslim. We must reclaim the importance of our arts and culture. We must remember where the closing of borders in the 20th century led nations around the globe.

In the Voices of Their Own

In Artistic Citizenship, Aria Fani examines Persian literary cultures, specifically in Afghanistan. For Fani, and for Persian peoples, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1979-1989) ignited a heightened awareness of concepts of citizenship, homeland, and exile. In the absence of a centralized political body in Kabul, Persian poets expressed variegated narratives of what constituted Afghan “identity” and loyalty to the nation.

Poetry of Afghanistan maintains ancient roots. And for thousands of years in Afghanistan, various peoples and forms of poetic expression have been and continue to be sites of resistance and, therefore, artistic citizenship. One such form is the “landay.”

As journalist and poet Eliza Griswold notes, the landay is:

an oral and often anonymous scrap of song created by and for mostly illiterate people: the more than twenty million Pashtun women who span the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Traditionally, landays are sung aloud, often to the beat of a hand drum, which, along with other kinds of music, was banned by the Taliban from 1996 to 2001, and in some places, still is.

Travelling in Afghanistan, Griswold collected numerous landays for the book I Am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan.

And since then, the New Zealand born composer Gemma Peacocke has set these two-lined poems in the multimedia work Waves + Lines for soprano, chamber ensemble, and electronics.

Hear this evocative work live on June 22 at 8pm, at Roulette. Here is “Love” from Waves + Lines

Soprano: Eliza Bagg
Pianist: Borah Han
Percussionist: Adam Holmes
Double bassist: Shawn Lovato

Recorded by: Yi-Wen Lai-Tremewan
Mixed and mastered by: Gregory Wayne Hanson Jr.

Text from:
I Am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan
by Eliza Griswold and Seamus Murphy