Featured Member — Rahul Varma
**Each month we interview two member playwrights to share their work, stories and inspirations with the community. Multi-award winning playwright and co-founder of Teesri Duniya Theatre, Rahul Varma, recently spoke with us about political advocacy in theatre for this iteration.
Born in 1952 in India, Rahul Varma moved to Canada in 1976. In 1981, He co-founded Teesri Duniya Theatre, which is dedicated to producing socially relevant theatre examining issues of cultural representation and diversity in Canada. Rahul became the company’s artistic director in 1986. He is a member of the editorial board of alt.theatre. Writing in both in Hindi, the language of his adulthood, and in English, Rahul’s subject matter is nearly always focused on politics. His pieces include State of Denial, Truth and Treason, and several others. With 15 plays written as well as a recent panel on the subject at the Canadian Writer’s Summit (CWS), Rahul is the perfect person to speak to about political advocacy in theatre.
You Attended the Canadian Writers Summit (CWS) in June. Can you describe your experience as patron?
Usually most literary summits, conferences, festivals etc., tend to exclude playwrights even though a playwright’s work is literary as well as performative. So, it was great to see that the Canadian Writers Summit had a significant presence of playwrights and theatre-creators. Thanks to PGC for the hard work it has done to include us in literary events.
At the CWS, the panel you were involved in, “Politics and Advocacy in Writing” had a excellent turnout and received some great feedback. Can you describe what the panel was like for those that did not get a chance to attend?
The theme of our panel was an important one, and the moderator, Judy Rebick, author of Heroes in My Head, was the main draw for audiences. The other three panelists, Tanya Talaga, Canisia Lubrin and I, shared our perspectives on advocacy and politics in our writing, which made the panel compatibly interesting. Audiences engaged in the discussion hearing that writing isn’t just a craft but a cause.
Journalist-writer Tanya Talaga, author of Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City, talked about how responsibility was the driving force behind her writing. Poet Canisia Lubrin gave her vision of exploring meaning in poetry beyond self-interest. I emphasized that a playwright’s role is more than understanding and explaining, and I am happy to share some of what I said at the panel. In theatre world a pervasive understanding is that art is for art’s sake, not for a political purpose; that art is self-discovery, self-awareness, reflection, knowing oneself and not more. A dichotomy is imposed that if art is political, it inevitably must be propaganda and therefore lacking aesthetics. Many playwrights often deny politics in the name of avoiding propaganda. But the alternative to propaganda isn’t denying politics; it is applying aesthetic consciousness as a dramaturgical doctrine. Aesthetic consciousness is the driving force behind my work. Writing with an aesthetic consciousness attacks corrosive powers that deny people their dignities. Suppressing politics under any excuse is self-censorship, which is the worst thing a playwright could do.
In addition, I believe self-expression or self-awareness should not be the primary motive of a playwright. When playwrights rely exclusively on the self, concerned solely with the desire for self-knowledge, self-expression, and self-awareness, with no reference to society’s experience, then their creative impulse has lost touch with the life and civilization that shaped them. In the world we live in, there is a pressing need for societal change — and change will not come without political action.
There is a close relationship between arts and awareness of what’s going on not only in one’s personal life but also in the world and lives of other people. Activism is a greater purpose of arts for it rebels against indignity, submission and injustice. And when writers rebel, they raise an alert in the minds of those who are perpetrators of injustice. They draw a line — a line that tells which side of the fence they are on — on the side of oppression or justice.
What defines activism and political writing as political is that it is concerned with imbalance of power. Political writing is progressive in nature — it points fingers at powers and sharpen the conflicts — both personal and political — to a larger viewpoint. There can be no separation between the political and the personal, between the issue and the aesthetic.
Overall, our panel consisted of activists, journalist, poet and a playwright; we differed in our disciplines but united in our cause — cause being justice. And I remember concluding with a great teaching from my grandmother, “path to justice isn’t easy but justice is the path.”
What was it like writing politically charged pieces at the outset of your career? By comparison, how is your work typically received these days?
My mother tongue is Hindi, and originally, I wrote in Hindi. English is a language I learnt as an adult. My first English language play was Job Stealer co-authored with Helen Vlachos and Ian Lloyd-George. Next, I wrote Isolated Incident with Stephen Orlov, and Equal Wages with Vlachos. These were one-acts, multi-ethnic and agitprop plays about immigrant communities — who are blamed for stealing Canadian jobs and end up in Canadian sweatshops. Isolated Incident was about shooting death of a black man by Montreal police. In 1990, to build relationships among visible minority settlers and Indigenous peoples, I wrote Land Where the Trees Talk, a play inspired by the Oka crisis, in which Mohawk Tribes created a human barricade against the Canadian armed forces to prevent the confiscation of ancestral land for use as a commercial golf course.
All my plays have generated a political discourse; some have generated controversy, particularly on the subject of ethnocentric Quebec Nationalism. The play No Man’s Land, co-written with Ken McDonough tackles the exploitation of immigrant labour and the insecurities of Muslim refugees who suffer a double burden of dislocation when confronted with the social upheaval of Quebec’s possible separation from Canada. Cahoots Theater Projects partially financed development of this play under the guidance of dramaturge-director Sally Han, and I will forever be indebted to Cahoots Theatre. In those days, no help was available to writer of color from big theatres. In Montreal, the Strathearn Intercultural Centre refused Teesri its venue to showcase No Man’s Land on the grounds that the play failed to promote “interculturalism.” Denied the venue, the play was produced in a garage, a kind of underground theatre, to great reception by the public.
For the first fifteen years of playwriting, I didn’t qualify for arts funding. However, things changed and in the mid-nineties I was declared eligible for arts funding; and with that I shifted my attention from agitprop to character-driven intercultural plays with aesthetic consciousness. Grants afforded me an ability to professionally workshop and develop my plays. Counter Offence was my first funded writing project. It is a story of conjugal violence in which the struggle to end violence against women, intersects with struggles to end racism. Directed by Jack Langedijk, Counter Offence opened to excellent reviews, and subsequently was translated into French as L’Affaire Farhadi and in Italian as Il Caso Farhadi. I would forever be indebted to Jack Langedijk and Sally Han, directors who saw value in my work.
Counter Offence was followed by international success in Bhopal, a play about the 1984 Union Carbide pesticide factory explosion that killed or disabled tens of thousands of people in the Indian city of Bhopal. Since its premier (2001), Bhopal was translated in French with the same name; in Hindi as Zahreeli Hawa by iconic Indian director Habib Tanvir, and in Punjabi as Khamosh Chiragan di Dastaan. It has had multiple productions worldwide but fewer in Canada.
My other play Truth and Treason, examines the “war on terror”, which in essence is the terror of war. Unlike most Canadian war plays that focus attention on trauma of returning soldiers, Truth and Treason digs deeper and examines geo-politics, and impact war has on lives of people we don’t see on our television screens. Truth and Treason has been translated into Hindi as Dhokha by Uma Jhunjhunwala and extensively produced in India directed by Azhar S Alam. Next play State of Denial is a story of two women, an Armenian and a Rwandan, who, while trying to reveal each other’s secret, end up revealing their own; the play examines Armenian and Rwandan genocides in one story.
Decidedly and uncompromisingly, my writing has been political, has featured culturally diverse and marginalized communities.
So, in summary, I believe my writing trajectory demonstrates two streams: (1) local, culturally diverse and indigenous peoples stories (e.g. Counter Offence, Trading Injuries, Land Where the Trees Talk, No Man’s Land), (2) international themes of human rights, war, women’s rights including Canada as an international actor in these agendas (e.g. Bhopal, Truth and Treason and State of Denial).
In my experience, my plays have been very well received by public. They have generated an engaging discourse, critical awareness of cultural diversity, diversified Canadian literature, and have offered opportunities for actors of color. My plays have not been that well received or appraised by what I call elitist artistic directors of Canada controlling big companies. With an occasional exception, these ADs opt for safe rather than relevant plays. When they present diversity, it is usually a nostalgic display of exotics rather than a critical exploration. This is a systemic problem, which can be corrected by strengthening smaller companies that appreciate meaningful works. Among the big and venue based companies, the Factory Theatre (Toronto) under the leadership of Nina Lee Aquino is a refreshing exception in terms of inclusion.
What stimulated the creation of Teesri Duniya Theatre? Was there a particular experience that prompted its origination?
When I came to Canada (1976), I witnessed a complete absence of stories of people of color. Canadian national theatre was monochromatic, white and bicultural. There also was a noticeable absence of political theatre. Teesri Duniya Theatre was formed to make-up for the representational gap, and represent what Canada truly was: a nation consisting of Indigenous people, diverse cultures, many languages, diverse histories and multiple heritages. It was formed to tell stories of communities marginalized and issues ignored by the dominant national theatre. The company’s mandate is to produce socially and politically relevant theatre that supports a multicultural vision and promotes intercultural relations. The company commits to multiethnic as opposed to color-blind casting.
Teesri Duniya Theatre’s work has been decidedly socio-political and progressive with an aesthetic consciousness. The company offers an alternative to the bi-cultural hierarch and brings the racialized minorities from the margins to the fore.
What types of sources do you use when creating your pieces? Which have you found to be the most rewarding?
Human conditions are the primary source and the main motivation in creating a play — what I receive in the form of people’s experience, I return to people in the form of artistic expression. Most rewarding are the plays that bring politically and racially marginalized communities from obscurity to visibility.
What advice would you give someone trying to write a piece with political or social advocacy at its core? What kinds of reactions should they expect? Which should they ignore? Which should they focus on?
Aesthetic consciousness. I would say that there is no separation between the personal and the political; these two things are two sides of the same coin. I would say that writing is never neutral. There is a myth that a playwright must write with neutrality. Writing is an examination, and examination leads a playwright to discover truth that can’t be ignored, and therefore obliges him/her to take a side! Taking no side, by default, puts a writer on the side of the establishment. While a playwright may never find the final answer, s/he definitely must know which side of the fence s/he ought to be.
Frequently there are productions that appear to have advocacy at their core, yet, may not always achieve positive representation. In Quebec, for example, the Robert Lepage and Betty Bonifassi production “SLĀV” has been getting attention over opposing opinions on its representation of historic Slavery. How does a theatre creator or goer identify whether a production is approaching their artistic intent in a respectful way in terms of cultural representation?
How does a theatre creator or goer identify whether a production’s intent is respectful in terms of cultural representation? Answer is simple. A theatre creator must respect that Canada isn’t a bicultural but a multicultural country; it is comprised of many cultures and peoples that are different but must be treated equally. Diversity is not a simulated display — it is a representation of people and their histories, and what their histories mean to them. Diversity is an expression from the specific of culture.
The SLĀV controversy reveals everything that is problematic with the Canadian theatre: cultural hierarchy, elitism, cultural hegemony, colonialism (despite post-colonialism), systemic favoritism, and finally the cultural policy. Not only Mr. Robert Lepage masks his colonial mindset behind his brilliance, he is allowed to do that, unreservedly by arts funding bodies. This is a problem that has to be corrected.
Faced with mounting protest, SLĀV was cancelled by the Montreal Jazz Festival. I supported the cancellation, and articulated my position in Montreal Gazette. (July 5, 2018). I am happy to share my views on this.
SLĀV, the “theatrical odyssey based on the slave songs” about African-American slaves and forced labourers, directed by iconic techno-artist Robert Lepage, starring celebrated singer/musical director Betty Bonnifassi is a rapacious cultural appropriation to whitewash a deeply troubling African-American history in the name of artistic freedom.
Lepage’s act of cultural appropriation is an outcome of his colonial mindset, as seen previously in shows like The Dragon Trilogy and Zulu Times, and in his continued practice of colour-blind casting that privileges white actors to play non-white characters. This time for SLĀV he has banded with none other than Betty Bonnifassi, who has asserted that she doesn’t “see colours” and which, according to her, do not “exist, physically or in music”. This is a caustic blindness given that color and race was the very basis of transatlantic slavery.
All artists have freedom to express truths and ideas, particularly uncomfortable truths and provocative ideas. Artists have the freedom to learn about cultures and stories other than their own. They do not, however, have the freedom to discriminate, distort, and exploit colonial histories. Cultural freedom is sacred, but it is also governed by rules of ethics, and it is these ethics that must not permit the production of a show about black slavery without an equitable participation of black people.
An alternative to cultural appropriation is cultural exchange, a kind of exchange in which people from diverse cultures and colours would come together as different but equal to exchange ideas, learn from each other and create art. Such a cultural exchange would transcend colonial history and beliefs as well as transform misconceptions and misrepresentations into truth.
It should be said that Lepage and Bonifassi did consult with Aly Ndiaye, a black hip-hop artist and historian for the production of SLĀV. He strongly stressed the importance of hiring black actresses to play slave characters. After viewing an early video of SLĀV with symbolic black representation, he resigned. Denouncing the lack of diversity in Quebec cultural scene, he wrote, “Now that a piece about a traumatic experience lived by blacks in America is taking centre stage, what are whites doing in most of the roles?” Mr. Ndiaye pin pointed the problem as what it is “a blatant lack of sensitivity and, because they have the power to do it, the appropriation of the narrative of a community — the telling of our story as they see fit.” (CBC, Jun 28, 2018).
These were songs of enslaved Africans expressing mourning for lost loved ones under extraordinarily punishing circumstances. Yet, at the exclusion of black artists, Bonnifassi was in the lead role in SLĀV all while singing slave songs backed by a lavish set, captivating visuals and exotics; Lepage and Bonifassi didn’t care that those songs were embedded in the deeply violent and wounding memory of slavery, racism and oppression. Bonifassi who doesn’t “see colours” simply professed, “We don’t talk about black and white in the show,” (Montreal Gazette, June 27, 2018). If she isn’t arrogant, she is unreservedly ignorant not to know that race and color was the central part of black slavery.
SLĀV’s backup artists are, in overwhelming majority, white women. With their hair wrapped in scarves, while wearing flowing skirts, and engaged in picking cotton, the presence of white actresses in these roles depicts the historical distortion Lepage would like the audience to accept. Whites were not picking cotton. They were exploiting the work of enslaved Blacks who picked cotton; they benefitted from the fruits of Black labour. SLĀV isn’t a fictional narrative that includes characters that are black — it is a show built on artifacts of a people’s suffering and those people are noticeably missing on the stage. The show says more about Lepage and Bonifassi’s colonial mindset than about the empathy they claim to be expressing.
These repeat occurrences of cultural appropriation are undeniably intertwined within the cultural politics of Quebec, which dismisses egalitarian multiculturalism in favor of a Quebec brand of interculturalism. At its core, it demands acclimatization of marginalized cultures to the taste of dominant culture, which includes reformation of identity, values, and ideologies.
Interculturalism without equality is assimilation, which is made possible by disproportionate (inferior) access to resources afforded to artists of color throughout the country. Cultural appropriation is an inevitable outcome of systematic racism which still exists. Under mounting protest and backlash, Lepage and Boniffasi instead of acknowledging their colonial blindspot, released an explanation which states, “the history of slavery, belongs first and foremost to those who have been oppressed and to the descendants of those people, but this history was written by the oppressors as much as by the oppressed, by whites as well as by blacks.”
Therein lies their ignorance — making equivalence between oppressed and the oppressor as if the oppressed had access to the same means to resist as their oppressors. Cultural appropriation is not an acceptable way to explore the history of slavery, oppression, migration and mass incarceration. If Bonifassi and Lepage wished to do so, we invite them to honor, respect, or appreciate people of colour, recognize them as different but equal, and dismantle systematic racism. We do not, however, invite them to use their iconic position to continue doing more of the same.
Had Lepage and Bonifassi consulted and worked with black artists, SLĀV wouldn’t have been a show of slavery, oppression, migration and mass incarceration — it would have been a show of resistance and liberation. And this is what Lepage and Bonifassi are unable to comprehend.
Do you have any new projects coming up you wanted to share?
I am working on multiple plays simultaneously; Difficult Bride, is a play in progress about a “not-so-young” immigrant bride coping with inherited traditions against her personal choices. Missing Girl is a project examining sex-selective abortion, a process by which parents learn the sex of their child in the womb and abort the fetus if it is a girl. My other project, Swami Om explores salesmanship of an Indian guru residing in Canada, who sermonizes-and-demands what his largely white followers believe-and-donate.
In conclusion, I thank PGC to give me a chance to share something about me, my company and the kind of work I do. Thank you.
Disclaimer: Playwrights Guild of Canada (“PGC”) is a national arts service mandated to engage and grow an active Canadian writing community. We promote Canadian plays around the world to advance the creative rights and interests of professional Canadian playwrights for the stage. The views of our members are their own. The opinions of PGC as an association remain neutral.