In her new play, Anusree Roy explores life in Calcutta's brothels
BROTHEL #9 by Anusree Roy, directed by Nigel Shawn Williams, with Roy, Ash Knight, Sanjay Talwar and Pamela Sinha. Presented by Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst). Opens tonight (Thursday, March 3) and runs to March 27, Tuesday-?Saturday 8 pm, matinees Sunday 2 pm. $15-?$40, Sunday pwyc. 416-?504-?9971. See listing.
A single disturbing image inspired Anusree Roy’s Brothel #9, her fourth and most ambitious show to date.
“In 2007, I was on the bus heading home from rehearsing my first play when I imagined a woman running down the street, the back of her sari flowing in the wind. I instinctually thought, ‘She’s a sex worker. I know she is. I feel it in my gut.'”
The play Roy was rehearsing at the time – Pyaasa, her debut solo show about the caste system in Calcutta – became a hit, winning her Dora Awards for writing and acting and establishing her as charismatic artist dedicated to exposing social problems in India. But she never forgot that vision of the woman running, and decided to turn her attention to understanding and depicting everyday life Calcutta’s brothel system.
In the past, Roy has worked alone or with a partner, but here a cast of four tells the story of Rekha (Pamela Sinha), a young woman sold into the shadowy brothel system embodied by her pimp (Ash Knight), a more experienced “den mother” (Roy) and a corrupt police inspector (Sanjay Talwar).
To make the play as authentic as possible, Roy visited India three times to conduct first-hand research among a few of the estimated 60,000 women who work in Calcutta’s red-light district. Her first challenge was convincing her reluctant uncle to arrange for someone to take her to a brothel for the interviews.
“I sat there and just listened to these women, who were kind, generous and open,” she says. “But then they would say, ‘You’re just coming here to steal our stories, aren’t you?'”
Roy promised them that none of their stories would be in the play and she would only use facts she couldn’t find anywhere else – like hourly rates and the unwritten rules of the trade.
One tense moment stays with her, however.
“I was interviewing one woman, a ‘den mother,’ who told me, ‘Did you know that I can destroy your life?’ She said, ‘I would ask if you’d like to do research in my room, take some notes or photos, and you would get very excited and go into the room. The next thing I would do is send somebody in to rape you, and your life would be destroyed.’
“She said this with a straight face. If she actually did that, there would be no way for me to escape. Then she burst out laughing and said, ‘Oh come on, just drink some tea.'”
Back in Toronto, Roy faced the new challenges of rehearsing as part of an ensemble, and under director Nigel Shawn Williams instead of her long-time collaborator, Thomas Morgan Jones.
“The challenge for me in rehearsals is to separate the playwright from the actor. There are days when Nigel asks, ‘Would the playwright please leave the room?’ I always want to edit and rewrite. It’s a tendency I have to fight.”
Roy hopes her play will humanize and in some way help the thousands of Indian women who – for a variety of reasons – become trapped in this way of life.
“I want people to see the reality of the conditions people live in every day, and to figure out how they can help to change them. Not pity, though. That’s not what I’m after, or what they’re after either.”