India Pale Ale written by Jaclyn Backhaus with a cast of nine South Asian actors already warmed my heart as I read the names on the wall walking to MTC’s Stage 1 theatre. As I settled into my seat and took in the view, I was thrilled to see a diverse audience (many of Indian descent) energized to see the play. Then the show started.
A simple story presented itself in the opening moments of the play. Boz, played by Shazi Raja, tells the family story of their ancestor, the pirate Brownbeard. Brownbeard’s employment was for the Dutch East Company transporting ale on a ship from Calcutta to Essex. The story is told in verse through the protagonist, a device used many times throughout the play…in pirate speak. As the scene shifts, we are introduced to her mother, Deepa (Purva Bedi) and her mother’s cousin, Simran (Angel Desai). We learn that there are generations of Sikhs living in Wisconsin and that the community is tight knit. However, we soon learn at the engagement party of Boz’ brother, Iggy (Shathya Sridharan) that though the traditions are continuing, Boz is unhappy. She is ready to get out of town and start her own life. Similar to her ancestor, the pirate Brownbeard. By the way, there is an obligatory Bollywood dance break that I loved but is unnecessary.
She leaves the town her family has lived for generations and moves to another town an hour away to open a bar. Of course, Boz has to explain to bar patron, Tim (Nate Miller) who she is because yours truly has spent her life answering the dreaded question “What are you?” A New Yorker, that’s what I am but I digress. That’s where the play changes course again. As we are enticed by Boz’ heroine journey, the structure of the play transitions. Something terrible has happened. A shooting by a white supremacist results in the murder of her father. The Prodigal Daughter returns home. As the family is in the hospital, Boz is visited by her father in a dream sequence on a ship; with actors in beautiful, rich colored costumes; and another style change. As the family and community comes together after the shooting at langar, the grief is evident. Iggy’s engagement broken, old passions reignited, a community reunited and unified. And then as the play ends, the fourth wall is broken and the audience is subjected to rousing and didactic speech on equality and samosas.
The play employs many style structures that made the simple plot confusing. Is the play about a young woman going on her hero’s journey or is it about race relations? Is this a serious commentary on racism in this country? Is the play a sitcom? Is this a play in verse? Is this a play with Bollywood elements? Any of these devices would work in choosing one of them, the feeling of being pulled out of the play so many times would have been avoided. Especially with the talent of the cast who loyally invested in the words of the play. The set and lighting design is thoughtful and subtle, enhancing the actors performances. India Pale Ale is the 2018 winner of the Horton Foote Prize for Promising New American Play which it is true. I’d be interested in seeing it’s further development as the Indo-American experience is one that isn’t told within and beyond our own segregated communities.
Manhattan Theatre Club’s world premiere of India Pale Ale, written by Jaclyn Backhaus and directed by Will Davis, runs through November 18th at MTC at New York City Center – Stage I (131 West 55th Street). India Pale Ale is the 2018 winner of the Horton Foote Prize for Promising New American Play . Starring Purva Bedi (MTC’s East is East), Angel Desai (An Ordinary Muslim), Sophia Mahmud (“The Blacklist”), Nate Miller (MTC’s Ripcord), Shazi Raja (“High Maintenance”), Nik Sadhnani (The Invisible Hand), Lipica Shah (Bunty Berman Presents… ), Sathya Sridharan (An Ordinary Muslim) and Alok Tewari (The Band’s Visit). The design team includes Neil Patel (Scenic Design), Arnulfo Maldonado (Costume Design), Ben Stanton (Lighting Design), Elisheba Ittoop (Original Music & Sound Design), Dave Bova (Hair & Makeup Design) and Will Davis (Choreography).