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South Asia hits the NY stage

March 12, 2003 21:13 IST

The lonely young desi woman who works as convenience store clerk in New York has been aware for some time that one of her customers has not really taken notice of her.

But today is different. The man has decided to get away from his wife. So desperate is he to make a break from his home life that he starts thinking of one absurd scheme after another.

Would the young woman help him? The white man even wants to get arrested, hoping he is mistaken for an Arab and deported to the Middle East.

The funny and poignant 11-minute play, written by Rehana Mirza and directed by Ashok Sinha, is one of the seven plays in 7-11 Convenience Theatre, now in a limited run at the Lower East Side Tenement Theatre in New York.

"I wrote the part of the lonely woman because so many South Asians are pushed into studying for certain professions by their parents," says Mirza. "There is a certain amount of loneliness in such lives. But loneliness is not confined only to the professionals. People who work in convenience stores also go through it. In many ways, they too are forced into taking up jobs they don't like."

In another outrageously funny episode, a desi doctor aunt spies on her niece at a Brooklyn bus stop around midnight. After giving the young woman a lecture about family honour, she suddenly makes a startling discovery. The niece is going to rob a convenience store. The aunt decides to join the holdup.

Rehana produced 7-11 Convenience Theatre through Desipina, which she founded last year with her sister, Ruhi. The organisation was founded as 'a response by artistes like us to 9/11 and the negative focus on immigrants like us,' says Rehana.

She joined six other writers to come up with the 11-minute long plays in the new show. All are connected to convenience stores. "Not all our writers are South Asians, and the decision was deliberate," Rehana says. The sisters themselves are born of a Pakistani father and Filipino mother.

"Our brief to the writers was that they should write something that challenged, defined and redefined the stereotypes people have of Asian immigrants," she adds.

By showing the characters go through experiences that are bizarre, disturbing and heartbreaking, the writers show that the convenience store workers belong as much to the American landscape as mainstream Americans. "We are trying to show the varieties of lives South Asians and other Asians live in America," she continues.

The plays don't show its desi characters as model minorities. "If we show ourselves as extremely good or extremely bad, there is no room for realism," she says. "We wanted to show that immigrants have different kinds of facets, just the way Americans do."

"After 9/11, South Asian and Arab immigrants got rough treatment across America," Rehana continues. The sisters then wrote a play called Barriers, a pan-Asian family drama dealing with the loss as well as the backlash and prejudice against South Asians and Arabs. It was their first project and it was widely noticed by the mainstream media.

Now they have yet another riveting -- and often funny -- play. "There is always something serious behind the funny plays," says Ruhi, giving an example of a segment in which two desi brothers at a convenience store indulge in murderous fantasies. They offer bizarre explanations as they shoot each other in the presence of a bewildered white customer.

"It is very funny, but it is also symbolic," says Ruhi. "It should remind us about how we pull down each other."

The 7-11 Convenience Theatre plays are written by Carla Ching, Deepa Purohit, Michael Hidalgo, Paul Knox, Rehana Mirza, Sandeep Parikh, Sarovar Banka. The cast includes Inga Hyatt, Monica Hong, Kayhan Irani, Amit A Patel, Tyler Pierce, Gita Reddy, Debargo Sanyal and Nandita Shenoy.

Arthur J Pais