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The Conductor at the Theater for the New City

In a scene of The Conductor at The Theater for the New City. Above: Brian Simmons as Warren Chipp. Below: Imran Javaid as Shashi Parmar. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
In a scene of The Conductor at The Theater for the New City. Above: Brian Simmons as Warren Chipp. Below: Imran Javaid as Shashi Parmar. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
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Rating
4.7/5

At the Theater for the New City, Ismael Reed‘s play, The Conductor, presented an evening of passionate, sometimes heated debate about the plight of Asian Indian Americans victimized by right-wing American leadership. American-Indian relations had deteriorated after India’s fictional downing of a US spy plane ordered by its premier Siraj uid-Daulah. An underground railroad, akin to bringing enslaved Africans to safety and freedom, was constructed to transport Indian Americans to Canada for passage to India. Our hero Warren Chipp (Brian Simmons) was The Conductor, who led the underground railroad and was protecting and arranging transportation to Canada for Indian American Shashi Parmer (Imran Jazaid). But this is only the beginning of setting the stage for contemporary political debate.

L: Kenya Wilson as Melody Wells.  C:  Monisha Shiva as Kala Parmar.  R: Brian Simmons as Warren Chipp. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
L: Kenya Wilson as Melody Wells. C: Monisha Shiva as Kala Parmar. R: Brian Simmons as Warren Chipp. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Ground zero for this examination of a modern diaspora and its attendant political intrigue was the successful recall by angry parents of three San Francisco Board of Education members in an effort that began in 2021 and was led by individuals like Siva Raj. Raj was a father of two who helped launch the recall effort and argued that the school board was unilaterally imposing progressive archetypes rather than acting in the best interests of all children amid the pandemic.

President Gabriela López, vice president Faauuga Moliga, and commissioner Alison Collins were removed from the board. While the community targeted the Democratic seven-member board, only three were eligible for recall. London Breed, a member of the Democrat party and San Francisco’s first African American woman mayor, supported the recall.

In 2016 Collins, who is black, was excoriated for tweets about Asians to which readers took exception. The board of education also faced widespread backlash for its handling of Covid-related school closings, ending merit-based entry into the city’s prestigious Lowell high school, and focusing on replacing 44 names of school district buildings, including that of Abraham Lincoln and California’s vanguard democratic senator Diane Feinstein.

An amalgam consisting of a modern underground railroad for Indian Americans and terse idealistic struggles between citizens and board of education members in San Francisco provided a rich contextual palate for debate.

L: Emil Guillermo as Gabriel Noitallde. R: Laura Robards as newscaster Hedda Duckbill. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
L: Emil Guillermo as Gabriel Noitallde. R: Laura Robards as newscaster Hedda Duckbill. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Reed presented a team of protagonists in lively discourse led by progressive black columnist Warren Chipp. This suitably chosen cohort possessed unique, diverse views, and some informed their perspectives with their experiences as recent immigrants. On “White Lightning” [aka illicit corn whisky] news, the primary antagonist Hedda “Buttermilk” Duckbill (Laura Robards), reported that “Warren Chipp, the former columnist, has launched a frivolous suit against The San Francisco Chrysalis, the newspaper where he worked for twenty years. The malcontent professional injustice collector and grievance peddler claimed he was fired because he supported the San Francisco school board members who instituted a lottery.” Warren Chipp filed a lawsuit demanding $500,000 in damages. Duckbill was later joined by guest commentator Gabriel Noitallde (Emil Guillermo), who heralded his graduation from Howell High School, Princeton University, and personal success.

Warren Chipp eloquently and powerfully presented his arguments. He supported his insightful assertions with scores of references, historical data, and anecdotes of personal experience. Shashi Parmer countered with how immigrants strived to improve their standing in America. Parmer did not consider his efforts associated with conformance to a pejoratively described “anglo” vision of success.

As with any well-crafted, intellectually fueled discourse, Reed’s work evoked exciting questions and ideas for viewers desiring continued debate. One might ask how to define the elite American vision of success—is it simply a projection of Western European or “anglo” culture, and if so, is conformance a sell-out to one’s true provenance, race, and culture? Why do immigrants continue to risk their lives and leave places where they have been for centuries to go to the United States? In the context of the San Francisco school board recall, how can American public schools function primarily to provide the means for every child to discover and pursue their passions? How do we include people of all cultures in the American debate about providing our children with maximum opportunities and support? How do we address the adverse impact of poverty on determining children’s futures? Why does government continue to deny poor children the same level of educational services provided in wealthy suburbs?

The Conductor celebrated emotionally charged discourse governed by mutual respect, intellectual rigor, and passionate argument without the hostility, recriminations, and violence sometimes seen in today’s national debate. The only physical violence witnessed was Shashi Parmer slapping his motorcycle-riding free spirit sister Kala Parmar (Monisha Shiva) for courageously defying his patriarchal, misogynistic command to leave for Canada and then India. Kala’s refusal to return to India was concisely explained in her response: “I’d rather die than go to India. I’d be a Dalit. I’d be a slave. As an unmarried woman, I’d be a ganika–a loose, promiscuous woman who sleeps with a lot of men. Married women don’t fare any better. They are considered hot. Available to men other than their husbands.” In addition to grabbing her arm and slapping her, Shashi responded with, “You obey me, you slut.”

(L) Rejected School Board president Gabriela Lopez and (R)  rejected School Board Vice President Alison Collins at talkback March 9 (opening night).  Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
(L) Rejected School Board president Gabriela Lopez and (R) rejected School Board Vice President Alison Collins at talkback March 9 (opening night). Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Whether you support removing the San Francisco board members or consider immigrants pursuing the American dream as conciliating to “anglo” values, you will be moved, impressed, and heartened by this production. It provides hope characterized by its rational, endearing, and eloquent characters. The complex topics discussed were vital and essential. It was also a reminder and comfort to know one can review the work of various news services in America powered by multiple perspectives. Does any reflective, caring, and thinking person take the word of just one news service? Hopefully not.

After an extended monologue decrying racism and his intent to move to Mexico for a better life, Chipp discovers he won his case and got his settlement. He’s back to work at The San Francisco Chrysalis and plans to run for the board of education.

The Conductor
By playwright Ishmael Reed
Directed by Carla Blank

The Cast

Laura Robards as Hedda “Buttermilk” Duckbill: Anchor of WLN, the White Lightning Network.
Brian Simmons as Warren Chipp: African American. A progressive former columnist for The San Francisco Chrysalis.
Imran Jazaid as Shashi Parmar: Hi-Tech engineer and president of Citizens for Excellence in Education. Indian American.
Kenya Wilson as Melody Wells: African American. Columnist for the San Francisco Bay View.
Monisha Shiva as Kala Parmar: Indian American college lecturer. Sister of Shashi Parmar.
Gabriel Noitallde: Media commentator. Pacific islander by birth whose parents immigrated with him to the US when he was a young child. A graduate of Lowell High School in San Francisco, Princeton University, and a former Ivy League college professor.

Incidental music composed and performed by Ishmael Reed

Theater for the New City

155 First Ave. (at E. 10th Street)
New York NY

Box office (212) 254-1109, www.theaterforthenewcity.net

Runtime about 90 without intermission. After the performance was a Q and A with former San Francisco school board members Alison Collins and Gabriela Lopez.

Readers may also enjoy reviews of Hedda Gabler, Love, Sex and Real Estate, Oratorio for Living Things, and The Life at City Center.

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The Conductor at the Theater for the New City

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