Shakespeare Was Wrong–All the World’s Not a Stage: Sexuality and Freedom in Chennai

[Note—Picture Credits: Mohandas Vadakara]

I recently saw Marappachi’s play Naanga Ready (We Are Ready) in Chennai. In an open-air auditorium called Spaces on Elliot’s Beach Road, I sat with the capacity audience on jamakaalams spread out over sandy ground. The evening was sultry and the Bay of Bengal lapped at the Chennai shoreline a short walk away. On the crowded beach, where I had gone for a stroll before coming to the play, vendors of all kinds plied their wares. The old and the young, the rich and the poor, had come to the beach to escape the heat. They strolled down to the water or else sat on a low wall to watch. Couples promenaded… no…

No, that won’t do. It won’t do to blithely write couples; as far as the world knew, heterosexual couples promenaded, sometimes with their families. If there were people on the beach who were not heterosexual (and surely there were), they were not visible.

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That was the beach. Inside the auditorium, things were different, for Naanga Ready tries to make visible that which society renders invisible. In a series of vignettes loosely held together by the characters, the play explores the impossible gender choices that society forces upon us. Mangai is the director and presiding impresario of the play, which was written by Prema Revathi based on interviews conducted by Sumathi Murthy and Sunil Mohan. Mangai is a veteran of alternative Tamil theatre in Chennai. Her roots are in equal measure in indigenous performance traditions like koothu and political theater from around the world (she is, I know, a keen reader of Kenyan playwright Ngugi wa Thiong’o). Both influences were apparent in Naanga Ready. The set design—a clothesline from which clothes and body dummies hung, a net from behind which a gay character spoke of his tortured relationship to his mother—was abstract and suggestive; and the impressive concluding sequences of the play featured folk traditions, including the performance of divine possession, prominently.

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Rather than narrative drama, Naanga Ready is “movement theater” meant to articulate positions and provoke reflection. Ideas rather than narrative are at the heart of the play. That the play goes about its serious activist task without compromising entertainment value is an indication of its success. Naanga Ready initially makes its points about the “constructedness” of gender identities through humor. The powerful opening scenes of the play, set in a school for “gender correction,” are horrifyingly hilarious. Later the play turns more somber when the characters—representing a range of trans identities and sexual orientations—set out into the world to find jobs, housing, relationships, a measure of joy and security that the “normal” heterosexual world takes for granted. Based on actual interviews, these aspects of the play has an air of reality about it. The play’s strength is in creating for the audience through a cast that delivered strong performances a temporary space of safety where difficult truths can be spoken and acknowledged. (See the Naanga Ready leaflets in Tamil and English below for full credits.)

Shakespeare was wrong. All the world’s not a stage. Sometimes, thankfully, the stage is a welcome refuge from the unrelenting cruelties of the world. It is a bounded space of exploration in which to articulate ideas and desires ruled out of bounds in the world. Not all boundaries are bad. Theater has a long and distinguished tradition of calling intolerance to account from within its bounded space. Naanga Ready belongs proudly to this history. It calls to strict account the prejudices of the world at large, so blissfully taking the air on the beach nearby.


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