By James Bartholomew
“The language of music has never been foreign to me,” declares Sean Devare, writer and performer of “First Violin.” It’s an oddly proud affirmation, but for someone to whom so much has been foreign, the pride is justified. A first‑generation Asian‑American immigrant, Mr. Devare does not speak the native tongue of his mother or father, yet racial prejudice in America has made him feel like a foreigner on his own native soil. As a lifelong violinist, Mr. Devare found solid ground in music, but when he began an investigation into the history of his craft and the cultural nuances therein, the musician’s solid ground began to shake.
At its core, “First Violin” is a collection of poems, each revealing one aspect of the artist’s exploration of his identity. In “A Warning,” Mr. Devare acts the part of an immigrant at a border stop, patting himself down as a voiceover provides a detailed litany of stereotypes and xenophobic prejudices. Soon afterwards comes “The Army,” in which Mr. Devare uses his violin bow as a conductor’s baton and explains the power and synergy of any orchestra playing in lockstep, all while conducting his imaginary symphony to Camille Saint‑Saëns’s “Danse Macabre.” Mr. Devare continues, with poems and performances about his relationships with his sister and parents, his affinity for sixties and seventies rock music, the strangeness of encountering white Hare Krishnas in Union Square, and the origins of the violin itself.
That last one proves to be a point of fascination for the performer. According to the ancient Hindu text, “The Ramayana,” the powerful king Ravana crafted the first violin, using one of his arms for the body and its tendons for the strings. Ravana, however, was fated to become the villain of the epic tale, as the heroic Rama had to rescue his beloved from the now evil and demonic king. What then, does it mean for the pillar of one’s identity to have become the literal instrument of a demon?
This is exactly the kind of ironic musing that makes “First Violin” such a bizarre treat. Identity is a web of complexities and contradictions, and Mr. Devare delights in the tangled signifiers of his own intersectionality. In fact, what “First Violin”’s poetry conveys more than anything else is the transient nature of metaphors and symbols. Meaning drifts through generations and cultures, and that fluidity is an especially potent tonic for Mr. Devare. His violin becomes a lightning rod for that cultural discovery and the rallying cry for his reinvention.
As highbrow and ethereal as that concept may sound, Mr. Devare imparts it brilliantly through ‑ what else ‑ music. Using songs from Led Zeppelin and The Beatles, Mr. Devare makes the case that pop music has evolved to encompass the cultures that inspire it. He does this playfully through charged, distorted renditions of “The Immigrant Song” and “Stairway to Heaven,” while using the sitar songs of The Beatles to point out the oddness of appropriation. As out of place as a sitar may seem in the hands of a British pop musician, for Mr. Devare, those appropriations prove to be formative windows into his own culture. It’s a fact the performer seems reticent to accept, writing in a letter to his father that “the pain of losing your culture is different than the pain of never knowing it.”
There is incredible beauty in that kind of soliloquizing, but if there’s a downside to “First Violin,” it is the rapid speed at which those poetic musings fly. Gorgeous though they are, some of Mr. Devare’s turns of phrase deserve more time to unpack. While the meaning of his poems is never fully obscured, the constant flow of his figurative language makes the nuances of his vignettes difficult to perceive with complete clarity. For a play so centered on linguistic ironies and miscommunications, it’s perhaps an unfortunate irony that “First Violin” is occasionally too dense for its own good.
Thankfully, the abundant highbrow stylings don’t dim the play’s brightness. The true high point of the show comes with the unveiling of the fabled first violin, Ravana’s grotesque instrument made to court Shiva’s favor. It arrives here in the form of a twisted wooden demonic head, onto which the bridge and strings of an electrified violin have been crafted. Mr. Devare wields it with passion and triumph, basking in the significance he himself has granted it.
It is a moment when cultural identities collapse into a beautiful Gordian knot. After all, the identities that we inherit do not always fold neatly into each other ‑ which is to say nothing of the ones that we craft for ourselves through life. That being the case, it’s up to us to determine the significance of those labels. Of course, the more numerous the identities, the more difficult it is to find cohesion and meaning. Although deeply personal, “First Violin” is deceptively relatable in this regard. It is a show that revels in the discordant relationship between the myriad of images and symbols that encompass our inner selves. It is a harrowing and often confusing journey, but thankfully, “First Violin” is happy to provide the soundtrack.
Performed by Sean Devare
Directed by Alex M. Lee
October 2, 7:30PM
Photo: courtesy of Paul Morejón Studio
United Solo 2019
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
Follow us on Facebook
JAMES BARTHOLOMEW is a writer and musician living in New York City. He is an administrator of the Fordham University Theatre Program and an avid lover of the arts.