Voices From South Asia

Plays receive first exposure at playwrights festival

By Lavina Melwani
Lavina Melwani is a freelance writer.

December 23, 2002

How many dreams, how many memories irrirriigrants carry with them, how marty tales that lie silent on their tongues?

"As a South Asian American living in this city," said Flushing resident Saurabh Chatterjee, "I feel it imperative to present stories that have ~he nuances of our culture, but are accessible to everyone. To me, it's not an Indian story or a Pakistani story - it has to be a human story."

Indeed, Chatterjee's play "Thakur's Nostalgia" may have been written in Flushing, but it reaches back to the India of his childhood and deals with the dreams and dilemmas of working- class people as they grapple with family and responsibility.

"It's about a struggle that's really very universal, and it's a struggle that's also deeply personal to me," he said. "Writing this play not only allows me to explore this connection, but helps me as I search to find my voice as a playwright."

Yet this story may have remained untold, had it not been for the 2002 Indian Diaspora Playwrights Festival in Manhattan, which featured a staged reading of his play as well as those by three other budding playwrights, spotlighting new South Asian voices. The recent festival was organized by Aroon Shivdasani, director of the mdc- American Arts Council (lINAC), and Michael Johnson-Chase, international director of the Lark Theater Company.

Shivdasani thought it was time the South Asian voice in the diaspora appeared on a larger stage. "I wanted to promote these artists to mainstream audiences, and the Lark's mandate works well with that of the LINAC, because it helps the artists in the process of finally presenting that work to a much wider audience," Shivdasani said.

A call for submissions brought in 53 plays, and a team of readers whittled down the list to eight finalists. Then a selection committee made the final four selections. To bring as many young South Asian voices together, th~ festival also worked with up-and-comtng theater groups including Rasa Theater, Salaam Theatre, Rising Circle, Desipina and Disha.

"Once the plays were selected we put together the creative teams of playwright, director, dramaturg~ and eventually actorsf' Johnson-Chase explained. "The point is to allow a play to be tested in Cront of an audience with the playwright in attendance so that he or she could have the experience of seeing how the play holds up."

In Aladdin Ullah's "The Halal Brothers," it is the eve of the assassination of Malcolm K, and the two Bangladeshi brothers are in their Halal meat shop in Harlem, facing off. Ullah, who was born in Spanish Harlem, penned this poignant story of cultural misfits caught in a time and place not their own, and their struggle to make it their own.

"I wrote it because there is a large part of history that has neglected South Asians," said TJllah, whose parents came from Bangladesh. "My father and his generation were here in New York during the tumultuous 'SOs and had stories to tell about that era. I want to honor them and give them a voice that has yet to be heard.

"In order to move forward as a community we need to learn about our past and embrace our parents' journey.

"Unsuitable Girls" by Dolly Dhingra, who lives in London, was a hilarious look at a young Indian girl's brush with a line of unsuitable boys on the wedding trail. Interestingly, the locale of the story was switched from London to Jackson Heights for its New York run, proving that the cultural angst facing the young is similar across the Indian diaspora.

Sorovar Banka, who grew up in Philadelphia in a white neighborhood, examines issues of race, color and hybridity in "The Moral Implications of Time Travel." The play also challenges the stereotype of a model minority.

"I wanted to get at the real sense of being disconnected and exclusion that both the immigrant generation and especially the first-generation Indian-Americans may feel," Banka said. "I view the play as a fundamentally American play, really a play about the possible failure of America, and the violence we do to others and ourselves in this country."

Indeed, these staged readings at the Lark Studio Theater shown over four days did not end at curtain call. The goal is to ensure that the plays have a life after the festival. According to Shivdasani, three of last year's plays have succeeded in that, finding audiences and being further developed. This year's plays also have received a lot of interest from the theater community, Shivdasani said.

"1 believe that minority voices - the voices of immigrants and their subsequent generations - aren't minority voices at all," Johnson-Chase said. "They are the voices of America, and increasingly, the voices of people in transition all over the world.

"In the end," he added, "crossover stories are the ultimate stories tor Americans and are essential to our collective understanding of ourselves and our place in history and the future.

Copyright (c) 2002, Newsday, Inc.

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