Sunday, October 15, 2017

11th Canadian Challenge - 8th review - The Fish Eyes Trilogy

This is another one of those hybrid reviews where I review the published version of a play and the play in performance.  In this case, The Fish Eyes Trilogy by Anita Majumdar is still playing at Factory Theatre.  Only for one more day (Oct. 15), however, so sorry about that, though I did promote the show a couple of weeks ago.  The 3 pieces all sort of fit together, with most events happening over a roughly 2 year span (summer + the last year of high school and one year beyond) in the lives of three young women from Port Moody, BC.  However, there is one high school assembly and one high school dance that are particularly critical.  Once you have seen one play, then you have some sense of what happens in the other two, though each of the women has a different perspective on the events.  I'm really not going to be able to discuss these plays (beyond noting that they deal with cliques, bullying, betrayal and cultural appropriation) without going into some detail about the plot, so turn away now if you don't like SPOILERS.

SPOILERS, like seriously...

The plays are an interesting fusion of theatre and Indian dance (generally performed expertly but in one case a non-Indian performs the dances quite crudely).  The book itself is quite interesting as it has quite a few illustrations, many of which attempt to capture the key dance moves (though they do look a bit odd when frozen) but others focusing on props or other characters to provide a bit more context to the words.  I'm not sure it was entirely necessary to include them, but on the other hand, I did see the plays performed by the author.

Majumdar recently decided to close out the evening with Fish Eyes (it is actually the first one written and the first in the book).  I don't have a perfect memory, but it seems to me that for this current incarnation of the trilogy at Factory, I believe she cut out just a few lines from Fish Eyes where the Aunty figure is somewhat disgustedly preparing for Halloween and calls a trick-or-treater a hermaphrodite and hands over some uncooked rice.  I think this was softened just a bit, but I could be wrong.  I am certain, however, that one plot point in Boys with Cars was dropped where Gustakhi, the adult guardian, is talking about her life back in Punjab where she felt her daughter had besmirched the family name, and convinced her son to kill his sister (her daughter), but he was so weak-willed that he killed himself afterwards.  I guarantee you that I would have remembered that.  I think it was pared out since there is a limit to how much a character can antagonize an audience and then still be used as a "wise elder."  Plus, it may have just seemed like too much mirroring after Naz's parents also abandoned her, as well as Majumdar may just have felt there was already enough talk about honour killings by Indians in the news and she didn't need to add to it.  I didn't notice any cuts in Let Me Borrow That Top, but it was already the shortest piece and the last one written.  I may have missed it while reading, but I think a line or two about how Candice hadn't personally attacked Naz was added in performance to Let Me Borrow That Top (or perhaps this was just something that was discussed during the talk-back).

I'll try to squeeze the events of the trilogy into a bite-sized package.  Again SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS:
Naznin (from Boys with Cars) is dancing at a festival, when she catches the attention of Lucky (one of the very few South Asians to be considered cool and to have white friends, such as Buddy). While Naz is normally self-conscious (when not dancing), she defends herself (verbally) when Lucky teases her, which briefly earns her some respect from the cool crowd and, more importantly, impressed Lucky to the point that he asks her out and they become a couple.  While they are spending time with each other, Meena is having to help out her PE group choreograph a dance sequence drawing on Indian dance moves (as she is also a classically trained dancer). Her group, which includes Buddy's girlfriend Candice, is going to perform a dance to "Survivor"* by Destiny's Child at a school assembly.  When the day of the assembly arrives, Lucky has travelled to Calgary to try to get onto Bhangra Idol.  Naz goes up into the bleachers and sits next to Buddy.  During the dance sequence, he grabs her hand and forces her to give him a handjob of sorts.  She is frozen and blames herself for not doing more to pull her hand away.  After the assembly, Buddy sneaks away with Candice and they have sex in his car, but she has bigger ambitions (to study Indian dance in England) and they break up very shortly afterwards.  (Meena, who has been harbouring a huge crush on Buddy (to the point she turns down an opportunity to enter a dance competition in India) sees them break up, and she tries to swoop in and get him on the rebound, but finds out that he really is a drip.  Fortunately, it isn't too late for her to still go to the competition.)  After the assembly, rumours about Naz start swirling around, and Candice's friends start attacking Naz (verbally and physically).  Then Lucky breaks up with her and skips town.  The adults are worse than useless.  The principal suggests that Naz stay home to not distract the other students during finals, and Naz's parents are so shamed that they sell their house and move to Dubai, leaving her to fend for herself.  Naz moves in with Gustakhi and makes a living doing Indian dances for white people's weddings.  She gets a gig to perform at Candice and Buddy's shot-gun wedding, and apparently agrees to go 1) to see if Lucky turns up and 2) to kidnap Buddy and burn his hand while Candice is forced to watch.  (Even as she outlines this plot, it is clear she is only half-serious and realizes she has been watching too many Bollywood movies.)  She does not see Lucky.  She briefly talks with Buddy, who wants her to understand he didn't have anything to do with how she was shunned.  And she sees that Candice is 9 months pregnant.  She fiercely dances her dance, then leaves the building, stealing a mountain bike (and abandoning her watch over Lucky's abandoned car).  The stage directions say that she is leaving Port Moody, though this wasn't completely clear in the moment.

So that's a lot to unpack.  There is no question that these young women make bad choices, generally in an attempt to win or hang onto boyfriends.  In Naz's case, her entire future seems wrecked due to sexual abuse from a boy and then the inability of adults to place the blame correctly, let alone to protect the victim.  She is doubly or indeed triply victimized, and it seems like she might well have been able to move on sooner if 1) her boyfriend had at least listened to her once and 2) her parents hadn't completely over-reacted.  One interesting fact that Majumdar had mentioned during the talk-back was that there were so few South Asian children in Port Moody that they actually found it better to scatter and not hang out together, and it is particularly odd that Meena seems to have no idea who Naz is, given that they both are so steeped in Indian dance.  Indeed Naz says that Gustakhi isn't a dance teacher, so she must have learned from someone, but apparently not Kalyani Aunty, Meena's teacher.

At any rate, if there were so few Indian families in Port Moody was there so much face to be lost that the parents had to move to Dubai?  And I realize that social services can't be everywhere, but can a family just up and leave their teenaged daughter on the streets of Port Moody and no one finds out about it?  Dramatically, Naz is far more upset over Lucky's betrayal (whereas as an outsider, I can understand his actions, which are consistent with being a teenage chucklehead -- and feel perhaps he is somewhat unjustly vilified for not being as strong/noble as he might have been), but I find her family truly horrifying.  While Meena has much better closure (though much less trauma to overcome), it does seem that at the end of Boys with Cars, Naz is finally prepared to stop blaming herself for what happened and is starting to move forward with her life.  Not that this will be an easy road at all.  (I was saddened but not especially surprised to learn that the author experienced sexual trauma herself and this is certainly the main motivating force behind Boys with Cars.  She states that she has moved on, and thus Naz may as well, though Naz has a much weaker support structure in place.  If Majumdar ever does write a sequel, I would hope that Naz somehow gets it together to get into Langara and then eventually to reclaim her place at UBC.)

I didn't have as many reservations about Boys with Cars as did this reviewer, though I do think it is fairly unlikely that Naz would be performing at Buddy and Candice's wedding.  Even if she did agree to take the job (hoping to see Lucky), how likely would Candice want to see Naz dancing when her own dreams of going to the Coventry School of Bhangra were dashed (and I'll come back to this in a bit)?  She does come to the realization that she should have been mad at Buddy and not Naz, but I still can't imagine she really wants to see her.  Also, Buddy mentions in passing that his parents are punishing him for getting Candice "in trouble."  While this is a fairly pathetic wedding, held in a school gym, just how likely are the parents to hire an Indian dancer, even one as cheap as Naz surely is?  This may have been necessary as a plot-device, but it does seem improbable.

I largely do agree with the reviewer's reservations about Let Me Borrow That Top.  It was interesting getting to hear Candice's perspective.  She is sort of a clumsy version of a Kardashian, and Majumdar did like the fact she is one of the boldest and least apologetic characters in the whole trilogy.  The fact that she has no talent and is just a "stealer" is not really that important.  I also liked the vlog conceit, but I agree it was a little hard to understand why there would be flashbacks, even if she moved away from the laptop to signal that the action was now happening in a different time/space.  Maybe those bits could be rewritten so that the entire piece takes place "in real time" on the vlog.  One thing that wasn't really clear is just how well off Candice was.  She apparently lives with her mom and a bunch of sisters, and the father has cleared out (but is perhaps financially supporting the family).  Her mom is largely out of the picture, and Candice is basically raising herself.  Clearly, one of the biggest questions in this part of the trilogy is did she really get into the Coventry School of Bhangra.  No question she believed she got in.  I wonder if the answer is that this school is just not actually that good (certainly Lucky is portrayed as a mediocre performer), though it may be one step up from a diploma mill.  Mr. Sharma may have been willing to overlook Candice's shortcomings as a dancer if she paid full fees and perhaps the fact that she has a few thousand followers didn't hurt either.  (It's a whole different question whether this school had sufficient accreditation to allow Candice to get a student visa to the UK, but this takes place a few years back before the UK really started to crack down on immigration policy.)  I guess the fact that Candice could just fly off to England and plan to put this kind of money down means that while she talks like an airhead, she must have reasonable financial backing (which sort of undercuts the fact that she and Buddy seem to have nothing in Boys with Cars).

I do hesitate to raise the last point, but Candice seems so determined to learn Indian dance and is even a bit ruthless in breaking up with Buddy that I am surprised that it doesn't seem to even cross her mind to have an abortion when she finds out she is pregnant.  In Canada, it wouldn't even matter if her parents were against it, as her privacy rights and the fact that abortions are covered by MSP in BC would prevail.  Of course, she might have religious objections, but that is a whole piece of her back story that we didn't get.  It just doesn't quite hold together with the other things we know about Candice.  It would obviously change Boys with Cars a lot if she didn't reunite with Buddy, but it does seem like a bit of a missed opportunity not to at least raise the subject.

Anyway, this review has really focused on the heavier and somewhat darker aspects of the plays, but there are quite a few hilarious moments that partially balance the drama, particularly when Naz gets caught up in talking about her favourite Bollywood actresses or when Kalyani Aunty says something outrageous like how she wants to keep the mangoes away from white people.  (Gustakhi is nowhere near as fun and plays a much smaller role in Boys with Cars, particularly when the business about her children dying is cut.)  Meena talks quite a bit about how she wishes she could just have a normal life, but dance is integrated into all aspects of her life, so she brushes her teeth as a kind of dance.  Also, when she imagines Buddy falling in love with her, it is a scene out of Bollywood.  Naz has an amusing moment when she says that watching the CW channel doesn't prepare you for your first kiss.  Even Lucky has an funny line when he says that Miley Cyrus licking a hammer is art, but when he does it, everyone just thinks he's drunk.  On the whole, The Fish Eyes Trilogy is a significant and rewarding achievement, though definitely it is better to see the plays (and the excellent dancing) rather than just reading them on the page.

* It does seem quite cruel that Naz has bad flashbacks of the assembly whenever she hears "Survivor," so it isn't at all an empowering anthem for her.  Her dance routine is set to Chris Brown's "Kiss Kiss" or a remix of it, and indeed, she spends a fair bit of time defending him, saying that "both sides" of the story needed to be told.  Again, sort of another interesting wrinkle if one wanted to follow that thread.

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