Voices From South
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
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
"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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