Understanding Public Obscenities. 5 Lessons for New York Theater

“Don’t worry; I hear it’s easy to understand,” a Bengali-American in my row at Soho Rep reassured me, before “Public Obscenities” began.  For him, I thought.

As it turns out, he was half right. I easily understood the bilingual play, which is in Bangla and English… when the characters were speaking in Bangla! But there was a gap between what I experienced during the three hours in which the play unfolded in front of me and what I later grasped by reading the script and various articles.   Contemplating that gap in this unusual and often remarkable play has suggested some lessons for theater.

Gargi Mukherjee, Tashnuva Anan, Golam Sarwar Harun, Abrar Haque, Jakeem Dante Powell

(A note: Some of what follows below  could be labeled spoilers. I consider them clarifications – in part for those who thought that nothing happens in the play.  I’ve waited to talk about them until near the end of the run of the play, which officially opened at the end of February and was supposed to close March 26. But after several extensions,  “Public Obscenities” is still running, through April 16.)

Written and directed by Shayok Misha Chowdhury, a Bengali American poet and playwright who lives in Brooklyn,”Public Obscenities” focuses on Choton (Abrar Haque), a Bengali American PhD student from California, and his boyfriend Raheem (Jakeem Dante Powell), a Black American cinematographer, who are staying at Choton’s grandfather’s home in  Kolkata (the Indian city called Calcutta until 2001).  Choton has received a grant to conduct research for his thesis on the local queer community of Kolkata. He seeks out his research subjects on Grindr, and then Raheem films Choton’s interviews with them.  In this way, we meet Shou (Tashnuva Anan) and Sebanti (NaFis), who are both nonbinary.

Abrar Haque, NaFis, Tashnuva Anan

But Choton is also in town to visit his relatives. Choton’s grandfather (affectionately called Dadu) is long dead, although a photograph of his stern visage dominates the household, which is now the home of three people: Dadu’s daughter Pishimoni (Gargi Mukherjee) and her husband Pishe (Debashis Roy Chowdhury) – who are Choton’s aunt and uncle — and their servant Jitesh (Golam Sarwar Harun.)

That’s the set-up for the seven characters on stage, and what’s striking about “Public Obscenities” from the get-go is how authentically acted and designed it feels. Those who know the region have weighed in on how accurate and precise the details of the set by the design collective dots (comprised of Santiago Orjuela-Laverde, Andrew Moerdyk, and Kimie Nishikawa), from the type of mosquito net, the water spots on the ceiling and the color of the peeling paint on the wall, right down to the local Indian brand name bottles on the shelf.

The cast is largely made up of native speakers of Bangla, which I think is the first lesson for New York theater:

  1. Yes, it is possible to find performers who match the characters in culture and other aspects of identity, if you care enough to do so.

 It wasn’t easy, reportedly taking a year and a half to find the right people, all of whom are making their Off-Broadway (and, most, New York) debuts. They have direct roots in the West Bengal state of India (where Kolkata is located) or the country of Bangladesh, and more or less match the age, gender and orientation of the characters.  According to the cast bios, for example, Tashnuva Anan “became the first transgender news anchor in Bangladesh,”  and NaFis, who goes by the pronouns he/she/they, was Bangladeshi born and raised.  (I feel the need to point out here that I have friends who speak Bangla – they share names with some of the characters in the play! — but they are immigrants from Bangladesh, and the one I talked  to doesn’t consider Bangladesh and West Bengal as sharing the same culture, although they share a long border.  The Bangla they speak is as distinct, I’m told,  as the difference between New York English and Australian English. This admittedly subjective information points to the challenge of an exact match of culture and identity between actor and character, and brings into question the need for one.) 

The cast speaks Bangla about half the time, but there is a reason why it is easy for theatergoers who only speak English to follow what they are saying. Much of it is captioned in English on the screen mounted on the wall, which cleverly doubles as the family’s TV set. What a simple solution – and it prompted a second lesson:

  1. How easy it would be for the English to be captioned as well (in this production and all productions), for the deaf and hard of hearing , but also for those who haven’t mastered the English language or have trouble deciphering the actors’ accents.

Not all of the Bangla is captioned, and the Bengali characters sprinkle Bangla words even when they’re speaking English.   

  1. It is not always necessary to understand every word in a work of theater to appreciate it. Indeed, sometimes the difficulty  is the point.  In a work about immigrants, for example, it might help the theatergoer feel the foreignness that the characters experience.

In truth, much of the challenge to full comprehension in “Public Obscenities” is not linguistic. Some is cultural. But it’s largely the dramaturgical choices that Chowdhury makes in the writing and the directing.

The first example of a gap that’s more cultural than linguistic is the play’s title:  Why is it  called “Public Obscenities”?  Most New York theatergoers would probably consider the title misleading, or at the least ironic, whether or not the playwright intended it that way. The title is a description of how in effect queer people are officially viewed in India, based on article 292 of the Indian Penal code. There is a scene where Shou explains to Choton how a police officer  accused them of obscene behavior in a public place for the way they were dressed (in a dress and sandals with heels) and for  carrying AIDS awareness pamphlets and condoms in their bag.

This battle over what constitutes obscenity is reflected more subtly within the household. One example that is odd, comic, poignant and crystal clear is Pishe, who we eventually realize is in a loveless marriage, chatting repeatedly online with a divorced woman in Minnesota while they play virtual billiards (projected as text on the wall, as we see him silently tapping on his computer in the den); the chats become so flirtatious that he gets up to close the shutters — as if he wants to go private with this obscenity.

It is easy to overlook the existence of a plot in “Public Obscenities”  — to see it more as slice of life.  The playwright even offers a clue to encourage that view, in a conversation between Raheem (the son of an avid film buff) and Pishe about the films of Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray, with Pishe saying: “He is showing the reality of the life in Bengal.” One can walk away from “Public Obscenities” having experienced it not as a story but as the everyday texture of the characters’ lives, and the thick tapestry of themes that Chowdhury weaves around them – about the difficulty of communicating and of love, about the  struggles to overcome strictures of caste and gender and sexuality, about memory and loss, longing and belonging.

But that’s not how the play has been marketed. 

   Early on, Raheem discovers an undeveloped roll of film in Dadu’s old Rolleicord camera, and sends them to a local store to be developed.  

This is evidently the occurrence that the promotional material for the play describes as an “unexpected discovery” that “leaves Choton at the limits of language,” after which “unspoken secrets surface.”

 But do they surface? We never see these photographs and they are not at first straightforwardly described, except that they are of Dadu. We see only the characters’ reactions, which are hard to read; clearly, something is out of the ordinary, but what? You need to be paying careful attention to offhand comments throughout the rest of the play to pick up the three things that are unusual about the photographs: Dadu is  smiling, although his relatives don’t remember his ever doing so; he is apparently naked in them, although it is unclear how much of his body is revealed and whether his nudity is erotic or clinical (he had recently had surgery); he seems to have a rapport with the person taking the photographs.

This sets up a mystery: Who took these photographs? It’s a mystery that animates Choton – he seeks out an answer from his ill grandmother (who is shown only on video and not listed in the credits) but she’s too deep into dementia to be helpful.  But the mystery didn’t animate me very much, I suspect because Chowdhury was not interested enough, or perhaps not skilled enough, to maintain a sense of suspense. There’s too much else going on.

At the very end of the play, something subtle happens that seems to solve the mystery; I suspected this when I saw the play, but wasn’t confident about my perception until I read the script. And even now this counts as speculation – and my first and only real spoiler:

Choton and Raheem are leaving to go back home when Choton’s aunt asks her servant Jitesh to take a family photograph of them using Dadu’s old camera. And Jitesh handles this complicated old camera like an expert.

So, Jitesh, modest and barely communicative during the course of the play(except when he sings) , must have been the one who had taken the (naked?) photographs of Dadu. Did this mean they were lovers?

This would fit with one of the main themes of the play, but It’s an unanswerable question, and really an unasked one, because the information divvied out over the course of the play is too faint to register even as ambiguous. This leads to another lesson:

  1. Something that is delicately crafted in the script may be too understated to register on the stage

There are other storylines, some more obvious, others almost as indirect.

  “Public Obscenities” is at least the third work of theater I’ve seen recently that is nearly three hours long. In many ways they are all impressive, but each playwright apparently felt they had to put everything that excited them in their latest work – they were perhaps too passionate to select – which has made the shows too overwhelming to take in fully.

Chowdhury works at bridging the gap in cultural understanding, without violating the integrity of the world of the play, through the character of Raheem, a polite outsider who is in a sense our ambassador. The other characters explain things to him (and thus to us) about Bengali culture that would normally be left unspoken, taken for granted.  And his confusion reassuringly mirrors our own

Calling Raheem “our ambassador” presumes the usual New York theatergoing demographic, but that is evidently not the case here. Part of the beauty of the play is that it has attracted people who speak Bangla, or know the culture, who aren’t necessarily regular theatergoers. This leads to what is probably the most important lesson that “Public Obscenities” has prompted:

  1. New York is big enough to find an audience for a play about any culture, largely made up of people who share that culture, and appreciated by theatergoers who don’t.

Public Obscenities
Soho Rep through April 16
Running time:  2 hours and 50 minutes, including a 10 minute intermission.
Tickets: $70. Rush: $20
Written and Directed by Shayok Misha Chowdhury
Scenic design by dots; costume design by Enver Chakartash, lighting design by Barbara Samuels, sound design by Tei Blow, projection and video design by Johnny Moreno, dramaturg Sarah Lunnie, cultural dramaturg Sukanya Chakrabarti, Casting by Stephanie Yankwitt, and Kim Montelibano Heil, props designed by Patricia Marjorie, stage manager Alyssa K. Howard 

Cast: Tashnuva Anan (Shou), Abrar Haque (Choton), Golam Sarwar Harun (Jitesh), Gargi Mukherjee (Pishimoni), NaFis (Sebanti), Jakeem Dante Powell (Raheem), Debashis Roy Chowdhury (Pishe).

photos by Julieta Cervantes

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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