His wife is sad-eyed and desolate beyond resistance. “When I came to America,” she recalls later, “I was a prisoner…I was his slave.”
For Aparna Chennapragada, a star of the South Asian Association’s upcoming production Interrogations, playing Usha—an Indian immigrant trapped in an abusive relationship—was a challenge. But despite having no experience in theater—she herself came to the U.S. to earn a master’s in computer science and now works in Cambridge—her performance is haunting and subtle.
Chennapragada, who saw the casting call notice in an Indian grocery store, isn’t the only member of the cast to bring a different experience to the stage. The cast of Interrogations is unusual among Harvard productions in that it features students, faculty and staff from Harvard, MIT, Tufts and Wellesley, as well as members of the larger community. Some, like director Neilesh Bose of Tufts and Harvard stage guru Kiran K. Deol ’05, have been working in theater for years, while others have never been onstage before.
A joint effort between the Harvard South Asian Association and SAATh (South Asian American Theatre), Interrogations reflects on issues of domestic violence in an immigrant community. John Mathew, the co-director of the show who also portrays Usha’s abusive husband, describes SAATh as “a group that is not wary of taking on issues that are politically charged and that involve elements of activism.”
The Master’s Aide of Leverett House, Mathew is an expert in wildlife biology and conservation, but his other love is theater. Last year, he directed Grave Affairs at the Leverett House Old Library, the first stage production of a radio play set in an Indian village that he wrote for the BBC. SAATh, the first South Asian theater company in Boston, was founded in the wake of the positive response to Grave Affairs to promote theater by and about South Asians.
Interrogations portrays a community of immigrants anxious about succeeding in their adopted land and reluctant to publicly discuss such sensitive issues as domestic violence. “Do we want the mayor’s wife to think all Indian men are savages?” one character demands, having been asked to give time to a domestic violence advocacy group during an Indian cultural celebration.
Chennapragada says that her own liberal upbringing in India made it difficult to identify with her role as a woman who stays with her battering husband for over a decade. “My first reaction was, ‘She’s a wuss,’” she says. Her extensive research into the role, from looking up South Asian domestic violence groups to talking to survivors, soon changed her mind. “You read more and you see that the conditioning and social structure is so oppressive that she doesn’t really have anywhere to go.”
The situation is worsened, Chennapragada adds, by the fact that immigrant women who get married and leave their home country have no support structure in the United States. “If anything goes wrong, you just don’t have anything to fall back on.”
This weekend’s production marks the first time the show will be performed off book, having been done as a staged reading at Princeton and in New York. A talkback session featuring the cast and counselors from local shelters and advocacy groups directed at helping South Asian victims will follow the show.
Written by Jyoti Thottam and S. Karthick Ramakrishnan
Directed by Neilesh Bose and John Mathew
Produced by Ishani Ganguli ’05
Nov. 7-8 at 7:30 p.m.; Nov. 9 at 2 and 7 p.m.
Leverett Old Library