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Courtesy of Lesley Greene

October 17, 2017

Brahman/i: Hindu Gods Meet Standup Comedy

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More often than not, when the words “religion” and “gender identity” appear together, conflict ensues.

But that’s not what happens in the Kitchen Theatre Company’s production of Brahman/i: A One Hijra Comedy Show. Written by the award winning playwright Aditi Brennan Kapil as the first part of her Displaced Hindu Gods Trilogy, Brahman/i takes the form of a standup comedy show performed by the intersex main character “B,” and sheds light on the often overlooked experience of the I in LGBTQIA+. Through personal anecdotes, some hilarious and some deeply moving, B narrates a unique journey of self-discovery as an Indian-American navigating the rocky landscape of growing up as a Hijra, an individual born with traits of both sexes. Through B’s monologues, other characters come to life; An unpredictable but wise aunt, loving parents, annoying cousins and classmates, and the Hindu creator god Brahma, in a way audiences have not seen before.

Traces of the Hindu religion and mythology are everywhere in this play, subdued but also impossible to ignore. The idea of Brahman is a metaphysical concept in Hinduism, a cosmic spirit described to be “genderless, omnipotent, and omniscient” by Kapil. In times of confusion and internal conflict, teenager B manages to find common ground with the creator god, who is ambiguous in gender. And, in attempting to persuade B that such condition is natural and has always had a place in the history of their people, the ever so wise auntie cites the presence of the Hijra in the Ramayana. The outcome of interweaving elements of religion and B’s story is surprisingly harmonious. The process of self-discovery is essentially an attempt in search for one’s inner truth in order to establish a relationship with the outside world, and isn’t that what religious beliefs are supposed to be?

As Kapil says in her interview, her process of writing the trilogy was an attempt to find a way into her Indian heritage, and that her own experience of “emigrating, immigrating, experimenting, becoming,” led to the creation of “a person who doesn’t and won’t fit into any single category, ever.” Indeed, while B’s story is very specific to their gender, religion and family origin, it is by no means hard to relate to. One does not need to have undergone an identity struggle to such extent to understand the feeling of alienation and helplessness in not being able to a place, a “box” to belong in.

Kitchen’s new artistic director M. Bevin O’Gara brought the play to the theater after having encountered the trilogy at Company One Theatre in Boston. In her production, the theater is transformed with string lights hanging from the ceiling, round tables in the front row, and a small stage reminiscent of what you would find in a real comedy club with an intimate setting, completed with actual table service. Aila Peck, in her debut at the Kitchen, portrayed the role of B with immense energy and dedication, switching seamlessly between various accents and fully owning B’s quirky personality and cynical humor. I’d go as far as saying that the show is worth seeing just to witness her pure talent.

But, I must admit that I walked out of the theatre not knowing what to make of what I’d seen. Brahman/i is a lot of wonderful things, to be sure, but there is also a lot more that I wish it were. I walked in expecting very distinct and extreme ups and downs. I wanted the show to make me laugh till my stomach hurt and make me tear up from emotions. What Brahman/i ended up being, however, was an awkward point in between. It wasn’t enough of a real standup comedy, and it also wasn’t enough of a heart-wrenching coming of age story. (Though I suspect that some of this was because the largely older audience didn’t find many of the teenager jokes funny). I also thought that much more could’ve been done with the bassist J, who sits on the side playing backup and doesn’t really have any presence in B’s story until the very end. In addition, I imagine that the specifics of Hindu mythology referenced in B’s anecdotes could’ve been confusing or distracting for those who find the topic completely foreign. Lastly, the wonderful set design is somewhat underutilized. While Peck does a great job engaging the audience verbally and through eye contact, her blocking only brings her to the audience at the round tables once or twice.

In the end, could this play have been more? Yes. Is it still worth seeing? Absolutely. Brahman/i provides its audience with a rare glimpse of the experiences of the Intersex community, and I’m certain that the questions and thoughts about identity it inspires will stay for a long time with its audience.

Andrea Yang is a sophomore in College of Arts and Sciences, she can be reached at yy545@cornell.edu