It’s rare to see a performance so original that you can’t quite find your footing. Brahman/i, the story of an intersex Indian comic, purposefully moves all the boundaries of what you think you know to put you in the shoes of a character whose identity confuses them.
(For the purposes of this review, nonbinary pronouns (they/their/them) will be used to describe B, who identifies as multiple genders.)
First, the form: Brahman/i is part-play, part stand-up routine; both, neither, and something in between. The stage is arranged for a stand-up show, with a comedy cellar-type brick wall, date night tables, stand-up mic, water station, and an amplifier for the comedian’s bass-playing musical sidekick. But sometimes the spotlight shifts away from the main character, B, as they break from both stand-up and solo forms to debate with the bassist about the nature and truth of the show.
Second, the visual representation: in this coming of age story, where B learns that they are intersex—born with a combination of male and female chromosomes, hormones, organs, and/or genitalia—clothing is as fluid as gender. B, played by Aila Peck, spends part of the play in a short, dark vest while recounting their time as a boy, and part in a floor-length, glittering vest remembering their experiences as a girl. As the driver of the plot—the choice between living life as a man or as a woman—becomes more complicated, the amorphous long vest serves as many different clothing items: it is a sari draped over the forearm to evoke an auntie, or the head shawl of a historical figure, or a symbol of inconvenient femininity that must be stuffed into the crotch of pants to keep them from tripping the wearer. This invented garment, like B, cannot be categorized.
closes July 22, 2018
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It is difficult to put any aspect of the performance in one neat box, which is precisely the point. Many lines of dialogue in the performance center on the idea of thresholds: B’s auntie says that to hold a light and step through a doorway from one room into another creates a division between have and want; one room has the light, and the other wants it. But to stand on the threshold of the doorway, you can shed light on both rooms.
Once the audience realizes that they will not be able to put B or the show into one room, the comedic possibilities for the performance open vastly: B personifies the tectonic plates that grind up on each other to form India. B channels the thick-headed architects of Stonehenge and the valley girl namer of Mount Everest. B is a disciple, both of the popular kids they worship and despise, and of the Hindu gods they revere and do not understand. B lives on the threshold, like the slash symbol that separates the masculine name “Brahman” from the feminine “Brahmani”: they are both the irreverent creator god and the unreliable narrator of their own story.
As one-third of playwright Aditi Brennan Kapil’s Displaced Hindu Gods Trilogy, B’s story slingshots between education on ancient Hindu stories of the hijras—India’s third gender that was blessed by the god Rama and received legal recognition by India’s supreme court in 2014, but still faces social persecution today; to imagined dialogues motivating British colonization of India; to memories of B’s own struggle to “pick a side” between male and female bullies in their school gym class. The play reaches its height when the story lives in the present, behind the monologue/stand-up act, where B’s choice seems unresolved. Though the material of B’s story is stitched by their doctors, classmates, and family, their relationship to the bassist is the most mysterious and important thread.
As with good stand-up, many of the jokes rooted in personal experience kill. And although it is scripted, most of the audience work lands as it plays off audience expectations of Indian stereotypes. B’s sharp wit relieves much of the tension of uncertainty, through outbursts like “Who’s the fucker who invented pronouns?” and “Don’t mess with an Indian with math. We invented the zero.”
Peck, playing B, who is playing their stand-up stage persona, does a remarkable job of conveying different accents from many countries and time periods, while transcending stereotypes. Having performed the multitudinous characters within B starting in 2014 for both Company One and Kitchen Theatre, she does justice to Kapil’s incredibly imaginative playwriting, which boldly connects B’s experience flicking off a paying audience to the story of Galileo Galilei proposing heliocentrism to the Inquisition. Director M. Bevin O’Gara also honors the zaniness of Kapil’s writing. Her respect comes through in choices like using a janky high school projector machine to illustrate why bas-reliefs on ancient temples can be as gender-instructive as pornographic magazines, and breaking the story into thematic segments with songs from Star Wars, The Spice Girls, and Queen.
All in all, the show may leave you puzzled by all that you have learned, compassionate to the characters’ experiences, and open to new perspectives. If B has anything to teach their audiences about growing and changing throughout a whole life, then puzzled, compassionate, and open is a fine place to start.
Brahman/i by Aditi Brennan Kapil. Director: M. Bevin O’Gara. Featuring Aila Peck, Performer and Costume Designer, and Thom Dunn, Bassist and Sound Designer. Scenic Designers: Justin and Christopher Swader. Lighting Designer: Annie Wiegand. Produced as part of the Logan Solo Festival by 1st Stage. Reviewed by Kate Colwell.
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