India Pale Ale

 

 

 

 

by Carol Rocamora

 

“I know how it is in America.”

We’re hearing that line a lot on our stages this season. It’s coming from a multiplicity of voices—black, Hispanic, Muslim, Native American, LGBTQ—as they search for a place in our culture. They sometimes refer to themselves as the “other,” but if it’s up to a certain citizen named “Boz” (the latest voice to utter these words), they’ll soon be the mainstream.

Boz is the feisty female protagonist of India Pale Ale, Jaclyn Backhaus’s heartfelt new play at the Manhattan Theatre Club. Boz has a dual identity: she’s born in Raymond, Wisconsin, and she’s of Punjabi heritage. Her parents (also born in Raymond) and their extended family are content to live in their insular community and practice their traditions. But Boz (as played by a radiant Shazi Raja) is struggling. Who is she? American? Punjabi? What is her place in this country? What is her future? She’s tired of hearing the question: “What are you?” posed by polite, inquiring white minds.

So Boz digs deep into her heritage and brings forth its greatest strengths to help her find her way in America. According to her family’s mythology, they were descended from “Punjabi Pirates” —and one in particular, the intrepid Brown Beard, who sailed the high seas on a hijacked ship carrying cargoes of beer. So she comes up with a plan—to leave the Sikh family cocoon of Raymond, move to Madison (a university town), and set up a bar where she can proudly sell beer with the IPA label (referring to India Pale Ale, hence the play’s title). In that way she can define who she is.

 

Purva Bedl, Shazi Raja, Angel Desai

 

The play’s strength lies in its lively characters and the culture they celebrate. There’s her mother Deepa (Purva Bedi), father (Alok Tewari), and Aunt Simran (Angel Desai), keepers of traditional Punjabi ways. Then there’s her brother Iggy (Sathya Sridharan) and his best friend Vishal (Nik Sadhnani)—also Boz’s ex-boyfriend—a pair of “dudes” who are trying to integrate into the mainstream American culture. There’s also Lovi (Lipica Shah), Iggy’s disenchanted fiancée. They engage in typical family banter (criticizing, arguing, reconciling) and rituals (eating) with gusto, and provide the energy and vitality of the play’s ensemble scenes. There’s even an exotic dream sequence at the top of Act II, imagined by Boz, where they all dress and dance as Punjabi Pirates (in Arnulfo Maldonado’s colorful costumes). Will Davis directs this spirited ensemble with alacrity on Neil Patel’s sleek, bare set.

The heart of the play lies in these family scenes, where traditional feasting (“langar”) serves as the healing process for a tragedy that occurs at the end of Act I. It’s a true event that inspired Backhaus to write the play, based on a shooting in a Sikh temple that occurred in 2012 in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and— without risking a “spoiler”—the event propels Boz back from Madison to Raymond, into the bosom of her family, where she tries to integrate what she’s learned about her identity. And so she continues her journey, much as her ancestors did, both mythical and real.

In the end, the characters break the fourth wall and address the audience directly: “It’s an American tradition to forge chasms,” says one character. “What has to change?”

That last phrase is repeated three times. It was a question that resonated powerfully on the night I saw the performance—namely, election night.

 

India Pale Ale. Through November 18 at Manhattan Theatre Club’s New York City Center Stage I (131 West 55th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues). Two hours, with one intermission. www.indiapalealeplay.com

 

Photos: Joan Marcus

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