nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 19, 2005
A few years ago, I saw, loved, and subsequently published a play called Black Thang, which charts a romance between a black man and a white woman, in particular the difficulties imposed on the couple by well-meaning friends who bring all manner of preconceived notions and stereotyping to the interracial affair.
I bring this up because the first act of Anne Marie Cummings's new play India Awaiting reminded me of Black Thang a lot. Nikhil, an Indian who works as a stockbroker on Wall Street, and Janet, a photographer, meet cute and quickly fall into a meaningful relationship. She's reluctant to tell her parents—British father, Spanish mother—about Nikhil's ethnicity and religion (she says he's "almost British"); he delays breaking the news to his Hindu mother until she comes to visit him in the U.S. Nikhil's pal Anurag, meanwhile, doesn't understand why he wants a white girl when he can have an Indian wife, either here or at home.
Notwithstanding all the interference, Nikhil and Janet seem very determined to follow their hearts and ignore their friends/families. This is a tall order—a matter not simply of race, but of religion and deeply-ingrained culture. As well, Nikhil is facing a choice between his homeland and his new home in America—a question every immigrant has to deal with. Cummings is mining fascinating territory here, I thought.
But Act Two disappoints. Nikhil's mother stubbornly refuses to countenance the relationship between Nikhil and Janet (which has grown very serious: they're planning a wedding, to the point of selecting a wedding dress and reserving a church). In fact, Nikhil's mother goes into severe denial, continuing instead with her own plans to go forward with Nikhil's marriage, arranged decades ago, to a neighbor in India. As far as she's concerned, the matter is closed.
The way that Cummings decides to have Nikhil deal with this extraordinarily unreasonable (at least to these American eyes) behavior is both unbelievable and unsatisfying dramatically. I won't give it all away, but know that love does not triumph in India Awaiting; instead the playwright's heavy hand moves her lovers farther and farther away in response to cultural/familial pulls that, in the first half of their story, just didn't seem to be there. What's missing for me is something to persuade me that the Indian characters are acting/reacting in ways that make sense: their behavior needs context and background to explain it, otherwise it feels imposed upon them by their (American) playwright. (Another play I like a lot, Paul Knox's Kalighat, manages to provide just the sort of context that seems absent here.)
India Awaiting benefits greatly from the presence of its leading man, Maulik Pancholy, who creates a vivid, interesting, very complicated man in Nikhil. Pancholy shows us the many unseen details deliberately left out of Narelle Sissons's very spare and elegant set; his body language and movements establish place and mood effectively. The other performers never rise to his level of accomplishment, unfortunately.
The subject of India Awaiting is both intriguing and important—the challenges faced by an interracial/interfaith couple and by a recent immigrant to a new country are undoubtedly immense and worthy of exploration. But I didn't feel, at the end of this play, that I'd learned much about any of that. Instead, I felt manipulated by a playwright who was determined to make her characters do what she needed them to in order to get to a particular, and not very organic, ending.