Shayok Misha Chowdhury’s Public Obscenities having its world premiere at the Soho Rep is an immersive story into Bengali culture in Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta. Directed by the author in 12 episodes which are given chapter names, this two hour and 50 minute play is as much like a television mini-series as it is a family saga. The realistic production resembles a film as much as it is possible on a stage with our attention being guided to various alcoves as though they were film cuts on the remarkable setting by the collective dots. The play is challenging as the first long extended scene is mainly in Bangla, the language of Kolkata, without supertitles. While the rest of the play is translated when it is bilingual, the dialogue is studded with Bangla words which are left up to the audience to figure out.
Choton, a Bengali American PH.D student has returned to the city of his birth and the home of his aunt, uncle and grandmother on a grant to film interviews with locals who meet on queer hookup apps such as Grindr and Romeo. He has brought with him Raheem, his African American boyfriend of three years, as ostensibly his director of photography. When Raheem discovers a roll of undeveloped film in Choton’s grandfather’s camera, all are startled by what they see when it is developed – but who would have taken the explicit pictures?
The play is on one level a family saga. Choton is staying in the home of his late grandfather known as Dadu and his grandmother Thammi (who is dying in the next room seen only on video). Dadu’s stern photo holds pride of place on the wall. Also living there are his Aunt Pishimoni and his Uncle Pishe who seem to have a dysfunctional relationship. Pishe spends six, seven hours a day playing online billiards and Sadolu, and unknown to his wife has an online relationship with an American woman in Minnesota which has turned romantic.
For his research, Choton has put out an ad online and interviews the vivacious Shou, who identifies as kothi, that is an Indian designation of a male who takes on the female role in same sex relationships, here dressed in women’s clothing. She wishes to be a movie star and does not realize that Choton and Raheem are not making a feature film, but assembling research for a dissertation. In addition he meets up with Shou’s friend the animated Sebanti, who identifies as hijra, a transgender woman.
In the remarkable setting, the main room of the home has areas for dining, a living room which doubles as a guest room, an off stage bedroom seen in video, an office behind a shuttered window, and beyond that a door to the kitchen. In the back are a television screen, a window and a wall, all of which are used to project video or online conversations. These separate areas make it feel like there are many different sets on stage when in fact there is only one. The one scene that takes place by a nearby lake has beautiful wraparound video by Johnny Moreno which transforms the stage into an outdoor location. Barbara Samuels’ realistic lighting helps create the various playing areas at different times of day.
The authentic cast is uniformly excellent. As Choton, Abrar Haque is charming in his curiosity and deference to his relatives, while Jakeem Dante Powell as Raheem is amusing in his attempts to understand the Bangla language. Gargi Mukherjee is the backbone of the family as the wise, experienced aunt who is unfazed by anything. As her husband, Debashis Roy Chowdhury remains an enigma, saying little, until we see his online text to his American lady friend. Golam Sarwar Harun’s Jitesh, the longtime family servant, who speaks no English, is able to make his feelings clear despite the language barrier. The bubbly Shou played by Tashnuva Anan brings a new breath of life to all of her scenes, while her friend Sebanti played by NaFis trumps her in her one scene by the lake. Enver Chakartash’s costumes which range from American sportswear to traditional Indian dress define the characters as soon as we meet them.
While Public Obscenities is initially difficult to follow due to the bilingual nature of the play in which much of the early parts are not translated, it eventually becomes much easier to follow as it switches to English or uses supertitles on the back wall as it moves toward its inevitable conclusion. The play works as a visit to India, informing us about food, customs, family rituals, Indian cinema, education, sexual mores, etc. Playwright Shayok Misha Chowdhury obviously knows this milieu intimately and puts us front and center in this culture. The title refers to an event recounted by Shou that when she was taking selfies by the lake dressed elaborately in female garb she was told by a policeman that she was committing a public obscenity.
Public Obscenities (extended through April 16, 2023)
Soho Rep and NAATCO National Partnership Project
Soho Rep, 46 Walker Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.sohorep.org
Running time: two hours and 50 minutes with one intermission