I remember being four years old, lying in bed with my grandmother as she watched her favorite telenovelas in Tagalog, a language that was meaningless to me although everyone around me spoke it. I was never taught. She would absently pinch my nose, hoping, she said, to make me look “more American.” With my white skin, light hair, and tall frame, my flat nose is one of the only features indicating the duality of my race, and she wanted it erased. Since then, there’s always been a hesitance when I assert my heritage—am I allowed to identify as Filipino?
I’m not the only child of an immigrant family to feel this way. In her series of plays, dubbed the Displaced Hindu Gods Trilogy, playwright Aditi Brennan Kapil—who is half-Indian, half-Bulgarian, and grew up in Sweden before ultimately settling in the US—explores a phenomenon she calls “re-mythologizing.”
“They’re myth-making, they’re re-investigating my heritage in order to make it work for me,” she says over the phone. “When I stopped being so apologetic of who I am in this world, I also feel like I connected with other people who are like, ‘Yeah! Let’s just be okay with being this new hybrid thing,’ and kind of owning that and walking proud with it.”
The trilogy, which opens at the BCA Plaza Theatre this Friday, is expansive and bursting with energy, each play exploring the inherent symbolism of the deities of the Hindu Trinity—Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Sustainer, and Shiva the Destroyer—through the lens of human stories exploring themes of self-discovery and identity in an era of post-colonialism. “It’s all very cosmic,” she says with a laugh. Kapil’s plays speak directly to the displaced children of immigrant parents who have never been fully able to connect with their own heritage. Though we may look the part, there’s a barrier there—of language, of space, of privilege—that results in a disparity of identity and a lack of true ownership of either culture. “They’re not just Hindu god plays,” Kapil says. “They’re about my people. And I’m just trying to find my way to use these deities and their principles in my way. It’s universal, I think we all, at some point, choose to create ourselves and who we’re going to be in this world. It’s very much about that moment where you have to cope with your past in order to become something new.”
Audiences unfamiliar with Hindu mythology need not be apprehensive, as Kapil assembled the trilogy using plot structures and arrangement methods picked up through her Western upbringing. “One of them is a stand-up—we all know what to do with stand-up. One of them is a girl-gang thriller with a mystery at the heart of it, so we all know how to engage that. And one of them is based in sci-fi and romance. You will know how to be an audience member at that too.” That’s not to say that the plays will be a complete departure from established mythology. “If you have a basic knowledge of Hindu deities, you will catch more. If you happen to know your Greek myths, you will also catch more that others might not.” She laughs. “If you watched a fair amount of ‘Star Trek,’ you will catch things!”
Summer Williams, Company One co-founder and director of “Shiv,” jumped at the chance to work with Kapil on The Displaced Hindu Gods and expand the perpetually subversive repertoire of Company One. “I think sometimes audiences need to be stretched,” Williams says. “Some people might think, ‘Displaced Hindu Gods? This doesn’t have anything to do with me.’ And I think they’ll be surprised. People will find that they’re watching themselves in a lot of ways.”
Third culture kids aren’t the only ones to benefit from work like Kapil’s. Diversity onstage, represented well, is imperative to keeping up with and reflecting the ever-evolving American experience. These plays are not the place to learn about Hinduism. Nor are they even the place to learn about being Indian. They reach for something deeper, something rooted within everyone who has ever struggled with identity and the need to belong in the world. Kapil hopes audiences will walk away from her plays, after seeing just one or all three (marathon performances will take place on Saturdays and Sundays), “feeling expanded, feeling like the world is larger and more beautiful for containing such a diaspora of humans.
“I would love to think that some assumptions and boundaries that are unconscious and may be shaping our lives would shift a little. I would love it if they left laughing. If the ideas and the universality of what humans struggle with daily sort of kept spinning in their minds over time. I feel like all I do is try to have these intimate conversations in a room in the dark with people, and then I hope that they take it with them. That’s kind of the magic of theater.”