Silk Road hosts South Asian American Theatre Conference / by R. Sheth

BY Jonathan Abarbanel

Desi Drama: the First National South Asian American Theatre Conference was held in Chicago July 19-22, organized by the Silk Road Theatre Project with principal funding from the Ford Foundation and the American Institute for Pakistan Studies. The invitation-only meeting brought together 30 South Asian American playwrights, performers, directors and administrators chiefly from New York , Washington , D.C., Chicago , Minneapolis , San Francisco and greater Los Angeles .

Desi Drama grew out of the Next Big Bang: the First National Asian American Theatre Conference, held in Los Angeles last summer. A South Asian caucus quickly emerged, crystallizing around the perception—expressed by several Desi Drama participants—that South Asian stories rarely are produced either by mainstream theatres or most pan-Asian companies. South Asia—a term coined by the U.S. Department of State—refers to Pakistan , India , Bangladesh , Sri Lanka and sometimes Nepal . Said Dipankar Mukherjee, artistic director of Pangea World Theatre ( Minneapolis ), “I feel outside. We are not what most people think of as Asian or even Asian-America. We have to become such a strong voice within American theatre that the larger voice has to invite us into the conversation.”

The Desi Drama daytime sessions were split between discussion of familiar not-for-profit issues—audience development, fundraising, brand identity—and artistic and cultural matters ranging from casting difficulties encountered by South Asian American actors, to the stereotypical shadow cast by Bollywood, to the social and political responsibilities of South Asian American artists. Several sessions utilized theatre games and on-your-feet physical exercises to stimulate creative responses and assist the bonding process. Social evenings included dinners, an art exhibit and the Indo-Persian inspired Mirror of the Invisible World at the Goodman Theatre.

Much of the conference focused on practical matters; for instance, how to stimulate publication of plays telling South Asian American stories. However, the dominant issues blended the politics of art with pure aesthetics in open-ended discussions that resist universal agreement, but underline a series of choices made by individual artists and theatre companies.

One aspect of that open-ended discussion found some participants committed to performance and teaching of South Asian classical theatre and dance, while many participants born or raised in the United States acknowledged their unfamiliarity with Old World traditions and languages.

“There comes a point where we don’t know the names of the people doing theatre before us, whether in the United States or other countries,” said Susan Sherine Kanga, a Los Angeles-born writer and educator.

Playwright Shisur Kurup (Cornerstone Theatre Company, Los Angeles ) framed the question, “How much of our story is the new American story, and who will come hear us? And who gets to tell it?”

Indeed, another point of discussion was the acceptability of plays telling South Asian American stories but not written by South Asians. The Jefferson Citation winning play The Masrayana was cited as an example; a play written by Euro-American William Kovacsik telling a contemporary Indian story, produced in 2005 by Prop Thtr and Rasaka Theatre Company. The general consensus was that the ethnicity of the writer is secondary to authenticity and universality.

At the institutional level, participants discussed the ultimate purpose of organizing a South Asian American theatre coalition. Is it to build funding and audiences for specifically South Asian entities, playing largely to South Asian audiences? Or is to use artistic and audience clout to gain entrance to mainstream theatre, as African-American and Latino theatre artists have done? Participants said the potential for developing a South Asian audience largely is untapped, especially among recent immigrants, but that reaching that audience requires a disproportionate outlay of resources. At the same time, speakers noted that South Asian Americans are the wealthiest minority group in the United States , but have not organized their clout to affect either politics or culture. One result, noted Dipti Patel (League of Chicago Theatres) is that non-South Asians are making judgments based on limited and often-inaccurate knowledge. “They say to me, ‘Well, the South Asian audience isn’t culturally experienced.’ There is a dialogue about us outside this room.”

Desi Drama concluded with agreement to hold a second National South Asian American Theatre Conference in 2009, combined with a festival of work by participating artists and companies. In the near-term future, attendees expect to establish an online presence to promote South Asian American theatre work, and to explore publishing options. An administrative sub-group will explore funding avenues for the as-yet-to-be-named umbrella organization expected to emerge in the next year, which will have as its basis 10-15 theatre companies to be identified within the next six months.

The Chicago participants in Desi Drama included actor Kareem Bandealy (Silk Road), actor/administrator Anita Chandwaney (Rasaka), administrator Kant Desai (Rasaka), administrator Malik Gilani (Silk Road), director/dramaturge Lavinia Jadhwani (Goodman Theatre), director/actor Anish Jethmalani (Eclipse), playwright/administrator Jamil Khoury (Silk Road), choreographer Alka Nayyar (Chitrihar Cultural Academy), marketing professional Dipti Patel (League of Chicago Theatre) and actor Tariq Vasudeva (Silk Road).