I saw Sita Ram at the Looking Glass Theatre this past weekend. I gotta say, I went in it feeling like I wasn’t going to vibe with it very well: an affluent white theater company puts on an adaptation of the Ramayan for an affluent white audience. The odds were stacked against them right from the start… my opinion of the show ended up being a little complicated. There are a lot of aspects of the show I thought were cool, and a lot of aspects that really, really bothered me. Instead of trying the write up a review of the whole show, I’ll try to take a few points that grabbed my attention, and go from there.
The main characters of the cast was racially pretty mixed–Ravarn, his sister, and Sita were played by South Asians, Ram and Hanuman were played by young black guys, and everyone else was a mix of black and white kids from the Chicago Children’s Choir (oh, and one Asian kid), and South Asian and white dancers representing Natya Dance Company. The mixed race representations didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would. It being a spiritual story that isn’t innately tied to a race, it was cool to see a somewhat mixed bag of races putting on the show (somewhat because it’s a “mixed bag” defined in very white terms: white, black, and uh, since it’s a South Asian story, throw in a few South Asian, too. If they were truly trying to represent diversity of the world, especially as portrayed in a city like Chicago, then where the Latinos at?? What about the rest of Asia and the rest the world?). The race issue did make me squirm in my seat at certain points in the show, when the Chicago Children’s Choir was acting as the monkey army helping out Ram–there was something bothersome about seeing young black kids jumping and chirping around like little monkeys, and picking bugs out of each others hair… and there’s something bothersome about Hanuman the monkey-God being played by a black male, rekindling black-monkey stereotypes (see the remake of King Kong serving as the most recent example).
The seriousness of this being a RELIGIOUS EPIC representing figures that people in our community deeply connect to as God, even to THIS DAY, was completely washed out of this rendition of the Ramayan. The magnitude that comes with the portrayals of God were lost, and so was the sense of responsibility the Gods take for their actions. Subsequently, since we are all minor incarnations of the Supreme being they represent, that also reflects the responsibility WE take for our actions (that’s where the “moral of the story” is supposed to have been emphasized). Speaking about the boon that Brahma had given to Ravarn making him invincible to all the Gods, Brahma and Shiva were non-chalaunt about it, ”—hup, nothing we can do, its out of our hands.” Uh, hello? What kind of message does that give about how seriously we take our own lives? I’m down for bringing the Gods to a more accessible level, but making them lazy and uncaring is entirely the WRONG way to do that. Shiva, and Brahma were portrayed by black and white girls, respectively. And that’s cool that they were portrayed by females. God being genderless can and SHOULD be portrayed by both genders. But the fact that they were both probably under 18 did not help in the immature, lackadaisical attitude the Gods portrayed.
With rare attempts to try to present the essence of the story–in an attempt to give this dramatic, high school love story a moral ending–after Ram kills Ravarn, Ravarn’s last words is a schpeal about how he was full of ego and has now been freed. Stating to Ram: “You and I are one.” Ram replies “yes, we ARE one” as Ravarn falls to a permanent sleep. After watching a fun little musical about love lost, this was a sad attempt at trying to add depth to the shallow characters I had been watching for the past two hours. I could almost hear the hippies-turned-marketing-executives behind me whispering “whoa, that’s deep.”
If I were asked to speak about something positive about the show, the artistic element the dancers added was beautiful. When King Janaka was holding the tournament to see who could string Shiva’s bow, to try to find a groom for Sita, the bow was played by one of the dancers, squatted down with her arms up to look like an archery bow. That was really pretty. When Ravarn kidnapped Sita, the dancers were his flying chariot, encircling Sita as she leaned over the edges calling out for Ram. That looked really nice. The choir was a good group of singers. But overall, it was an artistically weak, watered down, trying-to-look-deep-by-associating-yourself-with-the-east rendition of the Ramayan.
Outside of the artistic aspect of it, the politics behind the show bugs me, too. I went to the “VIP/Press preview” of the show, and the main people involved in the show came out to thank the sponsors. All white people except for the woman from Natya Dance Company. When they announced her name, they COMPLETELY BUTCHERED her last name, and went on to make jokes about it. When one woman paused, and said her name slowly to get it right, she got a minor applause and announced ‘I got it right!!!’ Uh, hello? If you have any respect for her as an artist, at least give her the decency of saying her NAME properly. What the ef?
The show was sold out in nine days–primarily to Looking Glass subscribers (affluent white people). The Bharatnatyam dance troupe involved in the show, Natya, held a benefit performance for $75-125 a ticket, in an attempt to give the South Asian community a chance to see the show. When the cheapest seats for regular tickets were $20 a pop, that’s hardly reaching out to people like my parents… The show is BARELY accessible to the South Asian community, the very community the story lives and breathes in today. I would have been the first to attribute this to the idea that the South Asian community in Chicago doesn’t support it’s own arts community, but given the opportunity to, it will. Rasaka Theatre proved that to me during The Masrayana, a 10 week show that had at least half-South-Asian audiences at a majority of their shows, at comparable ticket prices. And it was a small cast too, so it wasn’t just their parents who came…
I could go on and on and on… But those are a few of my thoughts about the show.