Displaced Hindu gods take center stage

Displaced Hindu gods take center stage
Illustration by Sara Gossett

You can forgive Aditi Brennan Kapil if she is just a bit excited about the opening of Mixed Blood Theater's 2013-14 season. Any playwright would be thrilled to see just one new work onstage. In October, Kapil will have three playing in rep at the Cedar-Riverside theater.

Mixed Blood presents Displaced Hindu Gods, a trilogy of plays based on Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. While the pieces are interconnected, they do not follow a single narrative arc. In fact, Kapil's plays each take on different storytelling styles.

The project started in 2009, when Kapil — the recipient of a McKnight fellowship that year — "started to grapple with my Indian side. It turned into this overstuffed piece called Shiv," she says.

While Kapil found the issues at play to be fascinating, the actual script didn't work. "This little play can't sustain all of this. I thought of a trilogy of plays instead of this one," she says.

Jack Reuler at Mixed Blood Theater agreed with her, and commissioned the playwright to craft all three works to be part of Mixed Blood's season. Kapil has a long history with the company, having been an actor, director (including the Ivey-winning Ruined), and playwright over the last two decades at the theater.

"There were firm deadlines for the plays. It allowed me to think of them as a set of three. They lived together in spirit," Kapil says.

The three key Hindu deities provided a ready-made way to divide the works. With that idea in mind, Kapil began to break down the issues and stories she wanted to tell. Shiv — in a decidedly different form — is still part of the equation. It has been joined by Brahman/i and The Chronicles of Kalki.

Having the three shows in rep at once "tightened them up in terms of size, and it allowed me to plant little Easter eggs across the course of the plays that you could catch if you saw them all at once," she says.

Breaking the work into thirds also allowed issues and thoughts to play out in different ways. "There are so many things that are in my head about that side of my heritage. There is a whole lot of colonial history and contemporary South Asian youth culture in the United States," says Kapil. "In this generation, there is a disconnect from the mythos."

Brahman/i, which has already been through workshops, offers plenty of challenges. "It needs an amazing actor who can be an androgynous South Asian standup comedian," Kapil says.

The Chronicles of Kalki "is a lucid dream piece about a girl who is the final avatar of Vishnu. That came in one forceful 'ready, go.' It hasn't changed significantly. It came out of me in one week, and there it was," she says.

During the writing process, Shiv continued to be the trouble for Kapil. The original, unwieldy work refused to clarify until a small moment changed its course. "There was a voiceover in the first scene with the father saying something offstage. I let the father walk in and say the line, and he took over. He became the most interesting and fascinating thing in the play," she says.

That change allowed Kapil to dig deeper into her own relationships, and broaden the title character. "I think he would be okay with me turning him into a fictional character," Kapil says about her father.

That, in turn, allowed there to be more clarity when dealing with the post-colonial issues in the play.

Over the past few years, whenever someone asked Kapil to come and read something, she would bring pieces of Brahman/i. She knew it was key to test the material, as the production had to work both as a standup routine and a play. At the La Jolla Playhouse, Brahman/i was in development for a month with two weekends of performances.

Of course, the script can only take the show so far. Much of it comes down to the actor, in this case Debargo Sanyal, who plays the intersex comic.

"The actor has to think like a standup, but with a script. Being present with that material and being true to the material? That is crazy hard, as we have discovered time and again," she says.

The character's androgyny is drawn from the god often being portrayed as genderless. This is connected to hijra, a longstanding Indian transgendered subculture. "It made sense to make my Brahma character of both genders; taking something so divine and sticking it in the middle of America and making jokes," Kapil says. "I didn't want it to be the biggest bummer in the world."

The Chronicles of Kalki explores the final avatar of Vishnu. "It is supposed to be a man on a white horse. In mine, it is a bad-ass girl," she says.

Kapil grew up in Stockholm. "My brother and I were probably the only Indian-Bulgarian Swedes in the city. There was one other Indian girl in my class," says Kapil.

As a teenager, she discovered comic books, and was sucked in by the X-Men and the famous Dark Phoenix saga. That inspired daydreams of being a superhero. "They are all underdogs. I used to have this depressing fantasy where I was a superhero and I had to save all of my classmates. The worst part was that sometimes I added a stage where it was also discovered that I was in disguise and I was blond and white," she says.

The pieces will be presented in rep at Mixed Blood, and it is possible to catch all three in a single day. There isn't a proscribed order in which to see them, and even those who take in the experience all at once can change it up, as Brahman/i is presented at the beginning and the end of the day.

The linking of the works goes beyond the scripts. The staging, while radically different among the three plays, will be connected. The actors often show up in multiple shows, providing deeper interplay among the pieces.

As one fantasy staging for Kapil is about to go up, she can't help but dream of more. "I'm hoping to see them all across the same city at different theaters in the same season. I am having preliminary conversations that will lead to that," she says.

Good things come in threes
Rich Ryan

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