On Tuesday evening I happened to witness the reaction of three audience members to Anusree Roy’s performance in her play Letters to My Grandma which closes today in the Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace. It was clear that this play had blown their minds and it reminded me of the first time I saw Roy perform two years ago, in the same space, during the first run of her play Pyaasa. Since then, she has won two Dora Mavor Moore Awards (Outstanding New Play (Pyaasa) and Outstanding Performance) and she has performed the play at the UNO festival, The Grand Theatre and at the Magnetic North Festival in Vancouver.
Anusree Roy is a unique performer whose talents for storytelling are both captivating and touching. She throws her entire being into the physical manifestations of the characters that she is portraying and she tells the stories that burst passionately from her heart. I would recommend that anyone in Toronto who is interested in theatre, and especially those who are interested in seeing creative and deeply personal theatrical pieces should make sure that they see Anusree Roy in action.
Letters to My Grandma is a play that explores the violent conflicts between the Hindus and the Muslims in India just after the Second World War and how this generated a deep-seated bigotry in generations of Indian people. Roy plays a wide array of different characters, but roots the story strongly in the eyes of a young Indian girl named Malobee who immigrates to Canada as a teenager and seeks to find a balance between the traditions of her homeland, her family and her religion and the opportunities and independence afforded to her in her new country. The story is also told from the perspective of her grandmother, both as a young woman herself, doing anything required to survive during a horrific war-ravaged India, and as an old woman who must come to terms with her own past and her granddaughter’s future.
The play tells a story that is obviously strongly connected to Anusree Roy and centres around a conflict which is significant to history, but perhaps not as widely known, especially in Canada, as it should be. At the same time, unfortunately, although the details are unique to this one time and place, stories of religious genocide and intolerance are all too familiar to us. Letter to My Grandma walks a thin line between being easily assessable and becoming nearly stereotypical. I found that when the play was set in India, the characters came alive with rich vibrancy. Here Roy did not shy away from depicting the dark underbelly world of those who will lie, cheat, steal and even kill to keep themselves and their families from death. The interactions between the characters were all intensely complex and at times unexpected. Malobee’s world in Canada seemed more predictable and I never got the sense of her rising beyond the “immigrant teenager” prototype to become a truly multifaceted individual. At the same time, sometimes I feel as though Roy focuses so strongly on the physicality of certain characters, Malobee’s mother, for example, that in their dialogue they lack a strong personality of their own and become interchangeable with similar characters that she created for Pyaasa.
Much of the magic in Letters to My Grandma was created by director Thomas Morgan Jones, to whom Roy has credited with her convention of using the breath to transition between her different characters. This gives a haunting effect. Jones also makes good use of red scarves throughout the play which conjure up a multitude of vivid imagery. Jones’ crisp direction is a perfect match for the energetic and zealous Roy, who often leaves her audience feeling quite breathless.
If you have never seen a play by Anusree Roy, I would definitely recommend going to Letters to My Grandma tonight at 2:30pm or at Theatre Passe Muraille; she is certain to boggle your mind. If you saw Pyaasa; Roy’s style is strikingly similar; which may make you feel as though you have seen the play before, or may, just as easily, entice you into the theatre with even more gusto.
Letters to My Grandma plays at Theatre Passe Muraille (Backspace) tonight, December 12th, 2009 at 2:30pm or . 16 Ryerson Avenue, Toronto. For more information please call 416.504.7529 or visit www.passemuraille.on.ca.