“India Pale Ale,” a play by Jaclyn Backhaus running Off-Broadway, suddenly becomes shockingly timely with the killing of 11 Jews in a synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Halfway through the play, a character barges into a bar owned by his ex-girlfriend, distraught: “Like a bunch of people were shot at services….Your dad like…”
The play is about a Punjabi Sikh family in Wisconsin named the Batras, and the inspiration is clear – the mass shooting in a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin in 2012, which left six worshippers dead and four wounded.
At the end of “India Pale Ale,” Deepa (Purva Bedi), the dead man’s wife and the matriarch of the family, walks to the edge of the stage and addresses the audience directly: “We are you and you are us,” she says. “What has to change to allow you to love someone whose culture differs from yours?” The rest of the cast distributes samosas to us, as Deepa says again and again “What has to change? What has to change?”
That Jaclyn Backhaus intends for her play to help answer that question is evident in a scene at the bar, when a friendly but clueless white customer named Tim (Nate Miller) asks Boz ( Shazi Raja), the new proprietor of the bar and Deepa’s daughter, where she’s from. When she answers Raymond, Wisconsin, he’s not satisfied. Where’s your family from? Also born in Wisconsin. Tim tries again: “Like, what are you?”
What are you? It’s a question Boz has been asked “500 times…’enlightened’ folks, even they do it.” Tim apologizes, jokes about a “teachable moment.”
“My life is a series of teachable moments,” Boz replies. And so it is in “India Pale Ale” (the name of one of the beers she serves in her bar, which she has called IPA.) Even in that conversation with Tim, Boz teaches him the history of the Punjabi population in America, where they come from, where they live, how it’s “a very tight-knit culture.”
Much of this is fascinating, as are the delightful scenes that glimpse that culture — the family preparing a meal after services; their lively, elaborate dancing, accompanied by original music by Elisheba Ittoop and choreographed by the director, Will Davis.
From the get-go, Boz is enamored of an ancestor named Brown Beard, said to be a pirate who hijacked ships full of beer, which is why she wanted at age 29 to escape her traditional family’s embrace and move to Madison to open up a bar. The pirate theme looms large in the play – along with pirate costumes, pirate dialect and a flashback scene of a pirate ship in 1823 — presumably a metaphor for the adventurous spirit Boz must muster to become independent, and that her family exhibited by immigrating. The cast of nine features eight South Asian actors, who together offer an appealing if familiar picture of a loving and fun-loving American family: Besides Boz and her mother, her wise father Sunny (Alok Tewari), her younger brother, Iggy (Sathya Sridharan) and his worldly fiancée, Lovi (Lipica Shah), the down-to-earth grandmother (Sophia Mahmud), Deepa’s gossipy friend Simran (Angel Desai) and Boz’s ex-boyfriend Vishal (Nik Sadhnani.) Much of the play, both before and after the shooting, consists of their everyday interactions.
“We can have a nice little after-school special,” Boz jokes in that first scene with Tim. That is how too much of “India Pale Ale” comes off.
Or, more precisely, the play presumes that the New York audience is as much in need of schooling as Tim, though New Yorkers live in a city with the country’s largest number of Americans of Indian descent, a city where Sikh police officers can wear turbans, and samosas are as available as burritos or knishes. Of course, the average New Yorker can learn more about Punjabi culture, but we fancy ourselves sophisticated enough to sample it without an accompanying instruction manual, which is how “India Pale Ale” can feel. The paradox of the play is that, in its effort to make the case that none of us are The Other, it assumes that is how the audience will treat the characters.
Ironically, in a program note, the playwright writes that, after writing early drafts that explained too much, “I decided that, rather than defending the humanity of my Punjabi heritage, I would consider it as the baseline reality – something audiences are invited to meet halfway.” We’d be happy to go even further.
Yet, if there’s an unfortunate pedantic undertone to “India Pale Ale,” there is ultimately a hopefulness to the play that we couldn’t need more right now.
India Pale Ale
MTC at City Center
Written by Jaclyn Backhaus. Directed and choreographed byWill Davis
Neil Patel (Scenic Design), Arnulfo Maldonado(Costume Design), Ben Stanton (Lighting Design), Elisheba Ittoop (Original Music & Sound Design), Dave Bova (Hair & Makeup Design)
Purva Bedi , Angel Desai, Sophia Mahmud, Nate Miller, Shazi Raja, Nik Sadhnani , Lipica Shah, Sathya Sridharan, and Alok Tewari
Running time: 2 hours including a 15 minute intermission
Tickets: $45 to $89
India Pale Ale is scheduled through November 18, 2018