Inside Off-Broadway’s Soho Rep is a set that takes audiences to Kolkata, India. There’s a television playing an Indian performance competition show in the corner, the walls are washed with the kind of chartreuse shade of mildew from monsoon season, and a plethora of sauces and spices fill the dining table. Its details, much like the characters and themes of the play Public Obscenities, are inspired by the life experiences of the new work’s playwright and director Shayok Misha Chowdhury.
Public Obscenities follows a queer studies Ph.D. student named Choton who is visiting his aunt and uncle in Kolkata while on a research trip for an academic project—he’s studying the slang of Kolkata’s local queer community. He’s brought with him Raheem, his Black American cinematographer boyfriend who has only learned a word “here” and “there” in Bangla. While conducting research, they are presented with small revelations about Choton’s family—like his uncle, who feels inadequate and whose dreams are filled with yearning. And Choton's grandfather, whose legacy of propriety and sternness is challenged by the discovery of an undeveloped roll of film. The NAATCO and Soho Rep co-commission and co-production, just extended at Soho Rep through April 9, explores the idea of what Chowdhury calls “quiet disorientation.” It does so through the small discoveries made about Choton’s grandfather and uncle, through Choton’s feelings of otherness as a queer Bengali-American, and the use of both Bangla and English to explore what in life does and does not need translation.
While the details are different, the slice-of-life play has what Chowdhury describes as “autobiographical architecture.” Chowdhury recalls, “There was a photograph of my grandfather that I saw once that did upend everything for me. Like, ‘Oh, I didn't realize that my grandfather was once this young, good-looking person. Who is he if he isn't this bald 60-year-old that is my mom's dad?’” Having had his own perspective capsized, Chowdhury explores that feeling in the play with Choton’s discovery of intimate photographs of his grandfather. Taken days before his death, they exist on a roll of film left in the camera for decades until Raheem opens it and has them developed. The photos show a vulnerable side of Choton’s grandfather that clashes with Choton’s previous understanding of a man he never met himself. Instead, he had relied on family stories and the formal portrait of the man which hangs on the wall in memoriam. (In a rather humorous scene, Choton begins to masturbate, but then stops because a glance up from the bed lands on his grandfather's portrait.)
Choton’s mediated relationship with his grandfather reflects Chowdhury’s own with his, who died seven years before he was born. “I have this poem that I wrote a long time back that starts with the line ‘I was born into my grandfather's death.’ I do feel like I was sort of born into his absence. He was the most important person in my mother's life and that vacuum that he left was very palpable to me throughout my entire life,” says Chowdhury.
Though there are close parallels between Chowdhury’s and Choton’s relationships with their grandfathers, Chowdhury took more liberties when it came to portraying his uncle. In his own life, Chowdhury’s uncle shared a dream with him while they were sitting on the low beds that appear in the Public Obscenities set. The dream is about his uncle going to the movie theatre where he watches a short film about a man and woman who lock eyes in a train station. In his dream, Chowdhury’s uncle thinks it is terrible, but believes it to be beautiful once he wakes up. It was an important moment for the playwright-director, who shares, “My uncle isn't someone who had demonstrated that kind of vulnerability with me throughout my life...It was the first time I got a glimpse into his internal life.”
Chowdhury later recorded his uncle telling the dream and translated it verbatim for Public Obscenities. But within the confines of the play, it makes more sense that the uncle tells his dream to Raheem, a director of photography, rather than his academic nephew. The uncle tells Raheem that he should make it into a film. Raheem, a cinematographer, maintains he doesn’t direct. Though the uncle has a strong fluency in English, the nuance of director versus director of photography results the uncle pushing Raheem beyond what he believes he’s capable of.
In creating that interaction with Raheem, Chowdhury was also able to play with language. “There are scenes that are 90 percent in Bangla and scenes that are fully in English,” Chowdhury says. When it came to deciding what to subtitle, and what not to, the playwright-director chose based on which character’s point-of-view he wanted the audience to sit in. “There were moments when it felt really important that the non-Bangla speaking audience be sitting in Raheem’s point-of-view. Those are the scenes which I have chosen not to translate the Bangla. It's about the characters translating to Raheem in real-time, so we get it at the pace that he's getting it,” he explains.
While Raheem certainly experiences the limitations of language as he tries to communicate with various members of the household, every character in the play comes upon the boundaries of their own understanding. Choton searches and asks for clarifications on slang words he doesn’t recognize in Bangla and he struggles in English to explain his specific sense of not belonging to Raheem. After Jitesh, the family’s housekeeper, happens upon Choton and Raheem in the middle of oral sex, Raheem is clearly disheartened by his inability to express “I’m sorry” directly to Jitesh, who doesn’t speak English. Jitesh similarly tries to communicate back and turns to physically indicating through his hands and actions what he wants to say.
The act of translating isn’t happening only on stage. It’s also been an integral part of the process behind-the-scenes as the cast has varying levels of fluency in Bangla and English. Chowdhury felt in this way quite a bit like Choton, constantly acting as translator. He also learned more about his own language abilities while working on the play. “It was a major revelation for me, that I had these fluencies as a writer in Bangla that I don't necessarily have as a speaker,” he says. He was pleased when the actors, who have had some of the lived experiences of the characters they portray, found the writing truthful. “When it didn't feel authentic, it was very clear,” says Chowdhury. “Having these performers who had these different fluencies in the rehearsal rooms taught me so much as a writer about the language.”
There’s also a sense of relief for Chowdhury who has wanted to write this play for a long time, but “I was always terrified of doing so.” It came down to this: Chowdhury didn’t think an audience would resonate with such a work because of its specificity of cultural references, and the specific intersection of being a queer Bengali-American that it explores. But since the play has been extended and found an appreciative audience, he says, “It’s been such a glorious experience of being disproven.”