Upcoming Dance

Minita Gandhi’s autobiographical one-woman show is making its official world premiere as the final production of the 16th Street Theater’s tenth anniversary season, but it’s already been subject to a huge number of raves. Developed at Silk Road Rising and Victory Gardens, earlier versions of Muthaland were performed at everything from the Raven Theatre and Lifeline on Chicago’s north side to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and more. It’s making was the subject of a feature in The Atlantic and a documentary called My Muthaland which won a regional Emmy. The play is about reconciling pride in one’s heritage with being subjected to the very worst aspects in that culture, and after receiving so much attention, the show absolutely lives up to its expectations.

In 2009, Gandhi received word that her younger brother had agreed to an arranged marriage while visiting India. This befuddled her since they are first-generation Americans and had always rebuffed their parents’ efforts to get them to embrace that custom. Gandhi is a faithful Jain who speaks Gujarati and had enjoyed family trips to India before, but she found traditional attitudes toward sex and romance to be the most problematic aspect of her upbringing. Nonetheless, after learning her brother was okay with the match, and facing this reminder that she was nearly at the end of her fertile years with no prospective husband in sight, she decided to go to India in search of her own spiritual awakening. She brought along with her a copy of Eat, Pray, Love and yoga instructions, eagerly anticipating meeting her destiny in Bollywood rom-com style.

What ended up happening was something very different and horrible. But while the sexual assault Gandhi suffered naturally has a very prominent place in the show, her message is that it exists alongside other aspects of her life and heritage. Over the course of ninety minutes, Gandhi deftly mixes horror with levity and beauty, creating a rich portrait of herself as teenager, a theatre student, and a growing young actress. Director Heidi Stillman worked closely with her for years to craft a piece which is emotionally authentic throughout as Gandhi switches characters between herself and others. By the end, it is easy to feel like we know not only her, but also her parents, and how their lives in each country are intertwined.

Pulling off any one-person show, let alone one which requires such honesty about things that are deeply personal, requires an incredible amount of technical and physical finesse. Gandhi had Lanise Antione Shelly as her voice and movement coach, as well as Anu Bhatt as a co-choreographer. With just an accent and some gestures with her left hand, she embodies each of her parents as fully-formed and separate personalities. From their first appearance, we understand them to be deeply loving, albeit somewhat overbearing, and her relationship with them winds up being the heart of the play. Her description of an incident involving a vibrator is as hilarious as it is cringe-inducing and their acceptance of her acting career, to name just one thing they unexpectedly had to adjust to, is heart-warming. It is fitting that a play about heritage should so strongly foreground the parent-child relationship, especially when the relationship is one between responsible adults who are still learning from each other. Muthaland is a story that everybody in America who is aware of what they’ve chosen to keep from their ancestors’ culture can identify with in some way, and in refreshing contrast to a lot of other plays which make up the American theatre scene, it shows us what happens when a family we can admire encounters a crisis.

Highly Recommended

Muthaland is performed at the 16th Street Theater in the basement of the Berwyn Cultural Center, 6420 16th St, Berwyn, Illinois. Performances are Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 pm and Saturdays at 5:00 pm and 8:00 pm through October 7. Tickets are $18-22, free parking is available in the lot at 16th St and Gunderson. Visit 16thstreettheater.org.

Published in Theatre in Review

 

 

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