There are two very compelling, thought-provoking, assumption-challenging one-person plays in town right now; because of my own busy schedule, I had (what turned out to be) the great good luck to see them both in one day, and they’ve been bouncing fruitfully off each other in my head ever since. So it seems appropriate and natural to write about them both in one post.
Mr. Joy is the third play by Daniel Beaty to premiere at City Theatre, and it is concerned with the same set of issues he addressed in Through the Night, his previous one-man show: the attitudes and structures that perpetuate the cycle of poverty and violence in which too many young black men are trapped. As in that play, one actor – here, the mightily talented Tangela Large – embodies a diverse set of characters, and as in that play the various characters are embroidered together into a tapestry of community that has both tender junctures of support and hot flashpoints of anger.
A vicious attack on Mr. Joy, the Chinese proprietor of a shoe-repair shop in Harlem, is the hub from which a series of interconnected monologues radiate, each adding a perspective to the ongoing, always thorny conversation about race, class, privilege, and opportunity in contemporary society. Pairs of shoes lined up along the front of the stage stand for the customers Mr. Joy has served; they are both a tribute to his impact on the community and symbols for the wide range and mixture of people whose stories are told here. Beaty’s characters include Clarissa, a young HIV-positive African-American girl taken on as an assistant by Mr. Joy, who found in him a surrogate grandfather and mentor; Bessie, her grandmother, who organizes other grandmothers to combat gang violence; John Lee, Mr. Joy’s son, and Clifford, John Lee’s African-American boss, both of whom have risen far above their ghetto origins and barely conceal their own class and race prejudices against their former neighbors; Ashes, Clifford’s transgender daughter, rejected by her father but treasured by her Harlem neighbors; and DeShawn, a young black man torn between doing what is right and doing what he thinks he needs to do to survive.
Beaty’s form of storytelling relies less on plot than on collage effect; he pastes together monologue, song, and poetry to capture our empathy for a variety of (often conflicting) points of view. Part of Beaty’s skill as a theatermaker inheres in the way he casts his audience as interlocutor – each character hails us into a different subject position, and at times we “become” a character in the play itself – as, for example, when DeShawn addresses us as Dre, his homeboy just released from prison, or when the homeless artist James speaks to us, toward the end of the play, as if we were DeShawn. This positioning functions to counter the distancing effect of the play’s purposeful theatricality – it draws us into the world of the play not only as activated listeners and witnesses but also, at times, as its victims and perpetrators. The play thereby demands that we attend – and attend differently – to each of its varied characters’ pains, joys, fears, and frustrations, and in so doing offers an opportunity to walk a few blocks in their shoes.
That’s also what we get from Aditi Brennan Kapil’s Brahman/i: a one-hijra stand-up comedy show. For Quantum Theatre’s production, set designer Britton Mauk has convincingly transformed the Garfield Community Center into a popup “Temple of Comedy” (drinks and snacks come with the ticket), where the headliner is Brahman, aka Brahmani (Sanjiv Jhaveri), an intersex person who has chosen not to choose. In contrast to Large, who plays nine different characters of different ages, races, and genders, Jhaveri only plays one character in this show, but it is a character who transforms before our eyes, from man, to woman, to “hijra” (the Hindi word for an intersex person).
Personal pronouns are not going to be my friends in the following, so bear with me. Brahman/i recounts, in an at times knee-slappingly hilarious standup routine, the ways in which his/her sexual ambiguity became the source of anguish and confusion in adolescence, and how myths and fables from her/his Indian heritage, imparted by a sympathetic but bossy Auntie, did – and didn’t – help her/him understand how he/she fits in. Like Mr. Joy, Brahman/i invites us to spend time, and empathize deeply, with someone who has been marginalized by otherness. The standup comedy framework makes room for the playwright and character to anticipate and coopt the audience’s potential antipathy towards the character’s atypical sexual status; as in any standup routine, Brahman/i turns a lot of the jokes on him/herself. The self-deprecating humor has the desired effect, winning us over to Brahman/i’s side. Brahman/i also aims the humor at those near and dear, in comic imitations of friends and family, putting on the Indian accent and mannerisms that are, as she/he archly notes, reliably sure to get a laugh out of American audiences. But the comedy is arguably at its best when Kapil widens the lens and pulls into focus those aspects of cultural heritage that straightjacket sexual status and gender identity into the confines of what is socially convenient. For example, tear-inducing riffs on the sex temples of Khajuharo and on the role of the hijras in the Ramayana reveal both the longevity and silliness of many of our cultural assumptions about sexual identity and sexual expression – as Brahman/i cannily observes, apropos those temples of love: some ancient artist actually took the time and care to carve all that sexual expression in stone!
Jhaveri is commanding and charming as Brahman/i, and he works the room like a real-deal standup comedian. The play has a lot of excellent material, and it takes the audience on what turns out, in the end, to be an unexpected – and unexpectedly moving – journey, offering us insight into a subjectivity many of us may never have realized was “out there” to occupy. But it is about twenty to thirty minutes too long; the show would achieve a more forceful emotional payoff if Kapil subjected her material to some judicious editing.
It should be pretty obvious at this point how serendipitous and complementary these two performances are, especially seen back to back. In both, a single performer deliberately and transparently shows us what it’s like to live in someone else’s skin, and in so doing invites us to imagine ourselves there, too. In both, as audience members, we are given an active role to play in the performer’s presentation of self; we are there not only to witness, but to give the characters they assume space to come into existence. Both make it impossible for us to deny sympathy and concern for the marginalized others the solo performers so carefully embody, and both challenge and inspire us to continue to see through their eyes outside the theater as well.