by Lynn on March 17, 2011

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Factory Theatre, Mainspace. Written by and starring Anusree Roy. Directed by Nigel Shawn Williams. Designed by Shawn Kerwin. Lighting by Bonnie Beecher. Sound by John Gzowski. Fight director, James Binkley.

Playwright Anusree Roy goes from strength to strength in her writing. She burst onto the theatre scene with Pyaasa, her first one person play about untouchables in India. She also starred in it. Then came Letters to My Grandma about displacement, cultural divide, being true to one’s roots and oneself. She also starred in that. She branched out with Roshni by writing not just for herself but another actor.

Brothel #9 is her most ambitious, hardest hitting play to date. Jamuna is a prostitute. She works in a brothel in Calcutta, in room #9. She has her regular customers—one in particular, Salaudin the local police officer, married, sees her twice a week. And if she’s in a generous mood she gives him some of her cooked fish–a treat she occasionally allows herself. Jamuna is equal parts charm and steely resolve. She will not be pushed around as far as she can help it. She protects what little she has. When she became pregnant by a ‘customer’ a few years before, she watched as her babies were drowned so as not to put a crimp in business. That would make anyone hardnosed.

Birbal is the ruthless owner of the brothel. He has a wife in the country. He is always on the lookout for new girls. He makes a deal with a man who sells him his sister-in-law Rekha for 2100 rupees. Rekha lived in the country and thought she was coming to Calcutta to work in a light-bulb factory. Her brother-in-law dropped her off and left. When Rekha realizes what the place is she’s ready to bolt, but Birbal is forceful and keeps her there. Jamuna looks at Rekha with suspicion, tells her the rules of the place and lets it be known that she won’t endure any funny business.

Rekha’s first customer arrives that day—Salaudin. He takes one look at the beautiful Rekha and he wants her. She screams as he’s raping her. There is no help to be had. For Jamuna and Birbal this is business. Eventually Rekha becomes the prostitute of choice for Salaudin. In fact Salaudin is besotted and Jamuna is none too happy. Rekha sees that while she is trapped there she also tries to earn her way out—she hopes to save the 2100 rupees and payback Birbal and win her freedom. Things do not work out that easily.

Anusree Roy does not give her characters an easy way out. There is almost no sentiment in this fierce play. That would be a cheat, and Roy does not cheat, nor does she have to. Neither is she judgmental towards her characters—they all live in and have to endure their own confined world. Rekha has always wanted to get away from that brothel, even though she has become good at the job; even though she is tainted because of it. Jamuna on the other hand hangs on to that life. She has food, shelter and work. There is nothing for her to escape to.

Roy has done her homework—she interviewed prostitutes in India as research for her play. They asked that she not use their names and that she tell the truth, and it looks as if she has kept her promise. The proof is in the writing. Brothel #9 is gripping, harrowing and even funny in an irreverent way. The production also rises to the occasion. It is beautifully directed, again without sentiment, by Nigel Shawn Williams. We don’t see Rekha being raped, but we hear it and that’s all that’s needed to get the full force of what is happening up there in that room behind closed doors. Williams guides his cast with nuance, imagination (the speed with which Rekha goes thorough customers is particularly effective), and a keen eye for establishing relationships.

As Jamuna, Anusree Roy is pragmatic, unsentimental, like a bull dog when protecting her territory and space, hard- edged, and even compassionate in the end when that’s all that is left. It’s a very physical, bold, unself-conscious performance, unlike any other she has given. As Birbal, Ash Knight is both hapless and tough as the brothel keeper. As Rekha, Pamela Sinha begins by being innocent and desperate, but gradually hardens to the life. She is not as resigned to that life as Jamuna is which adds another dimension to Rekha.

And finally as Salaudin, Sanjay Talwar is a man conflicted—he is besotted by Rekha but can’t commit to her; he’s wary of Jamuna because of what she could do if she ever wanted to get even with him, her once ‘regular customer’; and there is some concern over his family as well.

The play is obviously about a faction of South Asian society that one does not speak about. But in this fine play Anusree Roy has illuminated that world and made it credible and vibrant to us, thousands of miles away. That’s what good playwriting does—it takes a strange world and makes its ideas accessible to those who would not know anything about it.

And for those cynics who don’t believe it’s possible for a country girl to be so naïve and not know her brother-in-law would sell her into prostitution–open your closed minds. Read a newspaper too. I guess those cynics would also find it hard to believe that a woman would come to Toronto from Pakistan to live with her husband, by an arranged marriage and doesn’t know he’s divorced her; or that he’s rescinding his sponsorship and won’t see her once she’s here? Believe it. It happened.

Brothel #9 plays at the Factory Theatre Mainspace until March 27, 2011.

Leave a Comment

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Lynn Slotkin April 23, 2011 at 7:48 pm