Lights illuminate a stage, empty except for a wooden chair, two old suitcases and actress Minita Gandhi. With just her body, her voice and a few simple props, Gandhi tells the semi-autobiographical story of an Indian-American woman who struggles to find herself between two cultures.
Gandhi performed her one-woman play, “Muthaland,” on the evening of April 29 in the Clark Theatre of the Dillingham Center. A talk-back where audience members could ask Gandhi questions about her play followed the show.
The Department of Theatre Arts, the Women’s and Gender Studies program and the School of Humanities and Sciences hosted the performance. Kathleen Mulligan, associate professor in the Department of Theatre Arts, and her husband, David Studwell, both taught Gandhi when she attended the Pacific Conservatory of Performance and Arts.
“[Minita] is such an open, generous and positive woman,” Mulligan said. “She has always been that way. It is hard to describe what it is like to be someone’s teacher and then have a chance years later to see how that person has blossomed into a mature artist. It is unbelievably gratifying.”
The story profiles some of the most intense experiences of Gandhi’s life, from convincing her parents to let her pursue her passion for acting, to meeting a prophet who predicts much of her life accurately, to meeting and letting go of the love of her life. She recounts her 2009 trip to India to celebrate her brother’s wedding, where she establishes a deep connection with the country’s culture but also experiences the trauma of a sexual assault while on a weeklong retreat at a yoga center.
Gandhi said that a few years after her trip to India, she participated in a justice-themed live literature show in her hometown of Chicago, where writers were invited to share their work. There, or the first time, she came out publicly as a survivor of sexual assault by sharing a 15-minute story about her experience.
“Once that was out, it was like this wind ran through me, and all of a sudden, the story just wanted to have life breathed into it,” Gandhi said.
Malik Gillani and Jamil Khoury, founders of theater group Silk Road Rising, heard about Gandhi’s story from people who attended the show. Gillani and Khoury offered Gandhi a creative team, two table reads and four public performances to help turn her story into a show.
This play was the first Gandhi had written. She said that while workshopping her piece at Silk Road Rising’s Solo Festival, she struggled with the decision to include the details of her sexual assault in her play.
“I wanted to write about the magic of India that I felt, and … being Indian and American and having that diasporic experience, what that finding of identity is and how you define home,” Gandhi said. “However, because of the assault, I felt really muzzled, and I couldn’t write about the experience without writing about the assault.”
In the play, Gandhi shows how her mother and other women told her to treat the experience like a bad dream and just move on.
“I definitely felt conflicted between wanting to treat it like a bad dream and wanting to be able to talk about it to sort of get it out of me, in a sense,” Gandhi said. “And I think writing the story and acknowledging the assault and sharing it with the world and identifying that I’m not less than because I am a survivor really gave me strength and greater healing in a way I didn’t know it would.”
Gandhi plays multiple roles in “Muthaland,” including those of her parents, her siblings, her friends, her lover and her assaulter, differentiating between characters by using changes in posture, mannerisms and accents. With no set or elaborate production, Gandhi said she is able to focus on her story.
Sophomore acting student Lawrence Bierra attended the play and said he was moved by Gandhi’s ability to tell a culturally rich story that people from different backgrounds could all understand and enjoy.
During the talk-back, Gandhi explained that she was worried about portraying India negatively or exotically to American audiences and that she tried to focus on addressing the complex relationship she had with the country. As an actor, Bierra said Gandhi’s performance was inspirational, as it taught him what it means to not worry about judgment while creating the most genuine art possible.
“She talked about how she was scared of what people were going to say about India and Indian men in general,” he said. “The minute you are willing to let go of that judgment and thinking about what people are going to say is when you’re going to be willing to create something.”
As a South Asian woman, Gandhi said she is used to playing simple, stereotypical roles and hopes one day her play will give other South Asian women the opportunity to play her complex role. Mulligan said Gandhi’s ability to take the initiative to create her own opportunity where her talents could shine is inspiring.
“Theatre is a frustrating business for women, and there are far fewer opportunities for women than there are for men,” Mulligan said. “For women of color, there are even fewer opportunities. For a South Asian woman specifically, perhaps even fewer.”
“Muthaland” will be making its official world premiere at the 16th Street Theater in Berwyn, Illinois, from Sept. 1 to Oct. 8, and a full list of other performances can be found on Gandhi’s website.