Opening night of Ray’s Magic, a series of short plays performed by the Boston-based Bengali theatre organization Off-Kendrik last May, was sold out. The audience was packed with an audience of almost entirely South Asian faces, chatting in a mix of Bengali and English. Volunteers served chai, mixture, and Indian sweets while urging dawdling audience members to get seated.
The inspiration of Ray’s Magic was Satyajit Ray, who is best known in the West for his pathbreaking films but who was also a prolific Bengali writer. The evening’s four short plays, adapted from his writings, were performed in Bengali, with English subtitles on monitors adjacent to the performance space. The adaptations reimagined the stories, which originally took place in Bengal, as taking place in the United States.
Ray’s stories “depict a human frailty, the protagonists’ moral and ethical dilemmas stemming from human imperfections,” said Nila Rakhit, a member of the Boston-area Bengali community, who has attended Off-Kendrik productions since the company’s founding. “It is an ambitious attempt to reimagine a collection of Ray’s short stories in the contemporary U.S. context and bring them onstage, and Off-Kendrik has done it successfully.”
As mainstream theatre companies in Boston have struggled to attract more diverse audiences, diasporic communities from South Asia, China, and Latin America have launched small theatre organizations that produce work in the languages of their homelands. Packed with audiences of color unusual at most mainstream theatre companies in the area, these organizations produce work that unapologetically speaks to their communities, and demonstrate one way the theatre field could become more inclusive.
Off-Kendrik started in 2008 when a group of Bengali immigrants decided to put on a play, Bijoner Chayer Cabin, written by the theatre’s artistic director, Sankha Bhowmick. Since then, they have regularly produced Bengali plays in the greater Boston area (complete with closed-captioning in English), hosted story slams, and last year organized the area’s first South Asian Theatre Festival, which will place again Sept. 16-17.
Off-Kendrik produces a range of plays, but their specialty is adaptations of well-known Bengali stories, with local community members reimagining the work of popular Bengali writers. While Ray’s Magic stayed true to the themes and language of their author, the plots and characters were revised not only to be set in the U.S. but to be more relevant in the contemporary moment, as well as more inclusive of women than the original stories. The short story “A Strange Night for Mr. Sashmal,” a psychological thriller in which a man is encountered by every animal he has ever killed, was adapted by Jayanta Mukhopadhyay into “Shasmal and Gupta LLP,” a play about a D.C. lobbyist confronted in the middle of the night by the victims of his greed, who take the form of ghoulish wild animals.
“To me, the original story is about how a person is cracking under the pressure, whether it’s work, business, or you had a tiff with your partner, and tried to do something that is not right, and then it’s your conscience that is haunting you,” said Bhowmick. “I said, we need to put it in Wall Street or some kind of context where your conscience is finally getting back to you.” Mukhopadhyay’s choice: lobbyists.
Off-Kendrik’s actors, writers, stage managers, and designers are almost all recruited from the Boston Bengali community. Actors often rehearse in each other’s homes and South Asian-owned businesses advertise in playbills. While Bhowmick originally struggled to find enough people to keep Off-Kendrik going, it is now a hub of community building for Bengalis in Boston. While they do not have their own space, they come together to rent out local performance spaces like the Foundry (where Ray’s Magic was performed) and the Multicultural Arts Center in Cambridge.
“A large part of why people come is coming and supporting the community,” said Bhowmick. “Particularly when we come up with these original ideas or stories that talk a little bit about us, if they are done in humorous ways, they enjoy it. They would like to see some reflection of their life.”
They’re not the only local troupe with this model. CHUANG Stage, a bilingual theatre company predominantly featuring Mandarin/English work, started as a student theatre group at Emerson College to give Mandarin-speaking artists and students the opportunity to perform and see a reflection of their lives onstage. When Alison Yueming Qu, CHUANG Stage’s founder, noticed that more and more people from outside Emerson were coming to the shows, particularly from Chinatown, she decided to turn CHUANG into a full theatre company. Qu sees the company’s more niche audience as its greatest strength, giving it the freedom to challenge current narratives of Asian American theatre and experiment with new possibilities, stories, and perspectives. While CHUANG Stage has not had its own performance space for a while, it recently commenced a 3-year residency with the Boston Center for the Arts, which will be providing office and performance space to the organization.
“We want to bring a new Asian American audience in, and collectively with the playwrights, directors, and the new audiences, we are pushing boundaries and moving American theatre forward,” said Qu.
At a recent staged reading of the English-Cantonese bilingual play Flight of a Legless Bird by Ethan Luk, held at the Pao Arts Center in Boston’s Chinatown, audience members ranged from Cynthia Yee, a lifelong Chinatown resident and writer who is a subscriber to theatre companies across the country, to Thomas Le, who said it was the first play he had been to in a decade.
“I wouldn’t have come to this if it was white people,” said Le. “It’s great to have Asian American stories represented so people can see themselves and learn.”
CHUANG Stage consistently fills their seats. Qu said she has been frustrated by talk she’s heard in the Boston theatre community that Asian American shows fail to sell. She regularly hears from audience members like Le who have never seen theatre before, let alone bilingual theatre. Young Asian American audience members have told her that CHUANG shows provide a way for them to spend time with their parents, attending a show together, talking about it, and connecting on language.
“Hearing Cantonese actually got me to tear up a little bit, hearing this language feels very familiar to me,” said Wren Lee, an audience member at Flight of a Legless Bird.
If theatre companies are failing to sell seats for plays centered on the Asian American community, Qu said they need to reexamine their approach to community outreach, putting collaborative organizations and community stakeholders at the forefront of decision making. Both Qu and Bhowmick cited Central Square Theatre as a particularly strong example of a Boston-area theatre company that has developed a track record of producing work from diverse communities in a collaborative way.
When CST considered putting on a production of Lloyd Suh’s popular The Chinese Lady, for instance, Qu was among the initial readers of the play during the season selection process, along with other Asian American and Pacific Islander artists. Qu initially objected to CST producing the play, feeling that the story was traumatic and CST would not be able to do it in a non-harmful way. In response, CST asked Qu how they could do the play in an empowering way. CHUANG Stage was brought on as a consultant organization, and Qu and her team advocated for an interpretation of the play that rooted it locally and empowered local Chinese American community members—aims achieved with everything from a special lobby installation to the rhetoric of the theatre’s outreach materials to the training of front-of-house staff.
While Qu had a positive experience working with CST on The Chinese Lady, she said not all mainstream theatre companies have selected Asian American plays as thoughtfully. Qu advocates for inclusive processes when a predominantly white theatre decides to produce an Asian American play.
“A lot of the time, I know they are picking an Asian American play that is the least challenging to their white audiences,” said Qu. “If you choose the play hoping that it is not so much a challenge for the rest of the audience, you’re not standing on the side of Asian American activism.”
CHUANG Stage works with several Asian American community partners to build community and empower local organizing. When it produced the bilingual Vietnamese-English play Chosen Family, it worked with the PAO Arts Center and Asian American Theatre Artists of Boston to bus families to the show from Dorchester, a neighborhood with a significant Vietnamese American population.
Like CHUANG Stage, Teatro Chelsea, a bilingual Spanish-English theatre in Chelsea, Mass., has actively built relationships with grassroots organizations in Boston, respectively. When Teatro Chelsea artistic director Armando Rivera moved to Chelsea with the goal of launching a bilingual theatre company, he tried to identify which organizations had the community’s trust. La Colaborativa, an organization which provides services and conducts advocacy on behalf of Chelsea residents, was well-known for its effective work and strong relationships in the area. Rivera thought if he could earn the trust of La Colaborativa, he could win the community’s trust. So he taught a summer youth program there, which turned into a job running the arts and culture programming in its youth department. Through teaching theatre to youth, helping kids write their own plays, and taking students to major theatres in Boston to see productions and meet artists, he has helped young people see a future for themselves in the arts, while Teatro Chelsea has gained recognition and trust in the community.
Teatro Chelsea hosts an annual festival, A-Típico, showcasing readings of new plays by Latiné playwrights. After the festival, the company chooses one play to be produced as a world premiere. This year, the selected play was 619 Hendricks by Josie Nericcio, a play about a Mexican American family fighting over the fate of a childhood home in Laredo, Texas. In 2022, it produced the world premiere of Revitalized by Joel Ulloa. “Revitalized is a play about gentrification, and we are based in Chelsea, which is facing a lot of gentrification,” said Jaime Hernandez, a board member and theatre co-founder. “Not only was it a great play in general, but it just made the most sense to produce, because we want our stories to resonate with our Chelsea community, which is predominantly Latino/Central American.”
Rivera said Teatro Chelsea attracts bilingual, Spanish-speaking, and English-speaking audience members. One Chelsea resident in her 20s attended with her mother, who was able to understand the play and fully enjoy having a night out with her daughter, despite only speaking Spanish. Monolingual English speakers have come just to get immersed in a different experience. Bilingual audience members have been especially taken with the experience of seeing a show that was not only in their language but which also reflected their culture.
“A lot of theatre companies and a lot of artists tend to be like, well, we will never sell a show if we don’t cater to the majority at-large audience, but not the majority-minority audience,” said Rivera. “What we’ve seen is, there is an endorsement in relishing the specificity of our experience, of our language, bilingualism in particular.”
Teatro Chelsea is also building its local audience by offering special pricing for Chelsea residents and investing time and resources into getting community members involved in shows however possible, whether through less time-intensive staged readings or classes at La Colaborativa. Rivera emphasized that community connections cannot be transactional or made through one-time interactions, but require continuous engagement at the community level. He hopes that Teatro Chelsea can eventually become a training ground for new generations of Latiné artists.
“I have watched the youth that I have worked with write pages and pages of plays,” said Rivera. “It’s so much talent. What happens if we are given the chance to change the perception of Chelsea, to say that Chelsea is a place where immigrants come, but it’s also where great artists go to and grow?”
Off-Kendrik, the oldest of the three organizations, has already fostered great artists from the Bengali community, including Drama Desk-nominated director and playwright Shayok Misha Chowdhury, whose play Public Obscenities was a hit earlier this year at New York City’s Soho Rep (it will next play in the coming season at Brooklyn’s Theatre for a New Audience and at Washington, D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre). Chowdhury earned one of his early directing credits with Off-Kendrik’s Hingsha. Originally from Boston, Chowdhury said Off-Kendrik was a place where, as an emerging theatre director, he could be innovative in his mother tongue.
“They are troubling the notion that for immigrants and their children, the home culture need be traditional, historical, in the past,” said Chowdhury. “They are part of a movement of artists, in which I count myself, who believe it is possible to be rooted in community and make radical work. ‘Radical’, after all, comes from an old word meaning ‘roots.’”
Sravya Tadepalli (she/her) is a writer and organizer whose work has been seen in Prism Reports, The Nation, The Lily, Arlington Magazine, and Oregon Humanities.
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