It is rare to see theater centered around South Asian narratives in the United States. Rarer still to have two shows using different South Asian dialects run concurrently Off -Broadway. Public Obscenities by Shayok Misha Chowdhury at Soho Rep and Elyria by Deepa Purohit at Atlantic Theater affirm how varied and rich South Asian stories are.
I start experiencing Public Obscenities in the theater’s small, bright lobby. The mellifluous, sing-song tones of Bangla-Bengali spoken by audience members waiting for the house to open indicate that this play is in part about being Bengali. I’m Bengali of Bangladeshi extraction, not Indian extraction like the playwright Shayok Misha Chowdhury is. Chowdhury is what I call “Calcatian”—from Kolkata—so the Bangla that is spoken in his play—and in the lobby for that matter— is the fancier language of Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray, not the colorful Bangla one hears in the streets of Dhaka.
I anticipate being “in” on the jokes of the play and seeing part of my own experience on the stage. I am definitely in on the jokes, I get the cultural references, but almost nothing of my experience as a Bengali American is reflected in the story of the Bengali American character Choton (played by Abrar Haque), aside from a hilariously relatable struggle with mosquito netting. In fact, there are moments I connect more to his African American lover Raheem (played by Jakeem Dante Powell) than I do to Choton. When Pishimoni (Gargi Mukherjee), Choton’s aunt, asks Raheem if he likes the food and can handle the spice repeatedly, I am reminded of how I am asked the same thing even though I have been eating Bengali food my whole life. Like Raheem, I am the foreign guest. It is a gratifying feeling to see a story about Bengalis that is unfamiliar. I learn as I watch.
Public Obscenities drops me in a run-down, middle-class Kolkota flat, complete with chipped paint and mold from humidity on the walls (Scenic Design by dots). I believe I am in Kolkata; I feel the heat and am bedeviled by the mosquitos. The play starts with a meal and “adda” as we Bengalis like to call, “shooting the breeze.” Much of the show’s context is unpacked during this. The Bangla spoken is organic and unselfconscious, mirroring the general tone of the show. Subtitles run unobtrusively on a screen, keeping the audience appraised without interrupting the flow of language. In addition to Raheem and Choton, we meet Pishimoni, Pishi (Debashis Roy Chowdhury) and Jitesh (Golam Sarwar Harun)— the trusted family retainer who moves in and out of the story like a ghost, invisible at times to Choton, his aunt and uncle but never to Raheem or the audience.
Jakeem Dante Powell, Gargi Mukherjee, Abrar Haque. Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes
The pacing in the first act is as languid as a hot Kolkata afternoon with extended silences, but comes alive again when “Shou” arrives as a subject for the documentary Choton and Raheem are making about Grindr users in Kolkata. Shou is played by the ebullient trans actor Tashnuva Anan, who delights me from the moment she sashays onto stage. She trips between Bangla and English seamlessly and her candor and comic timing are marvelous. We watch Chowdhury and Anan, who is Bangladeshi, make history with this show and this casting.
Deepa Purohit’s Elyria also begins with grounding cultural details with Garba, a traditional Gujrati folk dance during the Hindu festival, Navratri. It opens in the past and the present simultaneously, the younger version of main characters Dhatta (played by Mahima Saigal) and Vasanta (played by Avanthika Srinivasan), dancing together with their older counterparts (Gulshan Mia and Nilanjana Bose). The older versions of the play’s protagonists encounter one another at Navratri. Both women are nonplussed. I am intrigued and confused. It takes a moment to understand that the past and the present—Ohio in 1982—are going to exist together on stage. In contrast to the set of Public Obscenities, Elyria’s set, (designed by Jason Ardizzone-West) is largely bare with beautiful rectangular and square frames that emit light and color hung on brick walls, and a large one hovering above the stage itself (Lighting by Jeanette Oi- Suk Yew). It creates intimacy by keeping our focus on the actors who move among the audience. I love the way the younger characters—the memories—move around the perimeter of the stage, symbolizing that our youthfulness is never far from our consciousness.
Elyria is a melodrama about a love triangle between Dhatta, Vasanta, and Charu that manages not to be maudlin. There is nothing sexy or heroic about Charu, the man both Vasanta and Dhatta still pine for. I understand life wears one down, but we need to see a glimpse of what renders this man so desirable, besides a well-turned poetic stanza. Vasanta and Charu made a baby boy that the impoverished Vasanta gave up to Dhatta to raise. Dhatta then hides this fact from Charu, who she married. They all end up in Elyria, Ohio and so must face their duplicity.
The conflict is set up and then left to flail tepidly. Why did Dhatta’s highbrow family not balk at the sudden appearance of a baby? Why did Charu accept this? The most important relationship that is not mined is the one between a distantly paternal Charu, and Rohan, his and Vasanta’s child. They rarely interact, though Charu knows Rohan is gay. If this relationship had been developed, Charu finding out Rohan is his son could have been more nuanced and moving. Instead, prime real estate in Purohit’s script is taken up by lackluster and unsettled dynamics between the rest of the characters though Sanjit De Silva’s portrayal of Shiv—Vasanta’s failed entrepreneur husband—is specific and masterful.
Gujrati is used mostly in passing and then immediately contextualized in English. Elyria is not a fully bilingual play as a result, unlike Public Obscenities which has long swathes of dialogue in Bangla.
At its conclusion, Elyria lands with a soft thud and leaves me dissatisfied that its ambitions are not realized. Yet, I am gratified to have watched an entire cast of South Asian actors perform at the Atlantic; hearing the Gujarati made my heart full. This is the cognitive dissonance of being underrepresented.