Sunday, September 29, 2013

Nirbhaya: The Show That Made Me Angry for the Wrong Reasons

Nirbhaya is a "play" presented by women of India, full of anger and purpose, who are driven to tell their own stories of abuse and molestation because they will not remain silent any longer after the horrific incident of Jyoti Singh Pandey, who was gang raped on a New Delhi bus.  In a country where people keep silent too often, and abuse of children and women is rampant, it becomes a revolutionary act to speak of the horrors these women have personally suffered. 

Certainly it is an important subject matter.  But I'm finding it hard to talk about Nirbhaya as a piece of theater. I saw the work at the Edinburgh Fringe in August and my seething rage over it has not subsided in the last month.  I keep complaining about it to anyone who will listen (I'm running out of friends) so I have finally put words to "paper" to try and sort out what about this work did not work for me.

In the first instance, I went in to this play with the wrong context and the play did not correct my misapprehension.  I had no idea these performers were sharing their own personal tales.  It's a critical fact that would have been helpful to know especially since it would seem the main purpose of the work is to bear witness to these women speaking out.  The act of bravery and "theater" here is that these women, who personally stayed silent for a long time, are not staying silent any more.   And rather than have actors perform verbatim monologues or "act" out stories of other peoples' lives, these women are giving voice to their own personal stories.

I walked in assuming this was a piece of dramatic theater (possibly based on true incidents) and the way in which it was presented--with many theatrical flourishes did nothing to contextualize the material correctly.  A simple program handed out to the audience before the show would have done the trick or mention of this in the Edinburgh Fringe program also could have accomplished this. 


Beyond program notes, the theatrical presentation itself was misleading.  Bits of physical theater, dance, smoke, and dramatic lighting start to take away from the main message.  Dressing this piece up as "drama" made me quite angry.  Mainly because the dramatic aspects were the weakest parts.  Rather than supporting the monologues or stories, the dramatic gloss just distracted from the women's' voices.   

I think the piece would have been stronger had these women been able to just present their stories plainly, without unnecessary flair.  Using their names would have made it more personal.*  Ultimately the repetition of abuse started to feel less personal.  Perhaps the idea was that this is so commonplace and therefore the stories are meant to be more representative of the fate of many women in India (and elsewhere).  But I would have appreciated the personal being left in the personal narratives.

While the woman who was burned by kerosene by her husband spoke about her separation from her son and tears streamed down her scarred face, I felt that this piece of theater veered off dramatically into the exploitative.  Having the one male actor "act" as her son as she recounted the pain of the separation from her son was gratuitous.  There is no doubt survivors can gain strength from sharing their personal pain in certain venues.  But there is bearing witness and there is re-traumatizing.  I did not find this moment powerful.  I found it particularly cruel.  The scene may stay with me but not for the reasons I suspect director Yael Farber intended.  I mostly wanted to tell Farber to fuck off and let the crying woman leave the stage. 

After Yael Farber's terrific production of Mies Julie last year I had high hopes for a visually compelling and emotionally engaging production.  Ultimately Nirbhaya disappointed.  It did not communicate its important message with the right context and the theatrical methods employed cut against the key message.  Much like Roadkill (an important piece about human trafficking and sex trafficking) the personal narratives got lost in literal smoke and mirrors and somehow the goal of the work got lost in the artifice of the play.

*Without a program I have no way to identify performers by name or by "character" and thus I am left weakly describing them by their assaults or physical appearance. Again, a failure of the piece to communicate that these women are people not merely symbols.

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