Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
How to introduce our interview with Jivesh Parasram (call him Jiv)…. Or rather, what to say that will be succinct? Because there is a lot to say about this maverick theatre creator who, in addition to being a writer and performer, is the Associate Artistic Producer of Theatre Passe Muraille and the Artistic Producer of Pandemic Theatre, the company he co-founded with Tom Arthur Davis.
His new solo show Take d Milk, Nah? is an ingenious blend of personal storytelling and ritual that explores race, religion and nationalism. The show began as back-and-forth banter between two brothers stuck in a car during a blizzard, went on to become a sought-after offering at Caminos 2017, and has now arrived in Theatre Passe Muraille’s 50th anniversary season as a Pandemic Theatre and b current performing arts co-production.
During our interview, several things became clear. First, Jiv has a knack for expressing his ideas in ways that a) are wildly entertaining, and b) catalyze deep thought. What might be scathing or savage in someone else’s hands is analytic, wry, and shrewd in Jiv’s. So he can treat subjects like otherness, exclusion, belonging and cultural divides with an erudite compassion that stimulates, then lingers in the psyche. Bold in the most positive and productive sense, he considers no topic off limits — this includes cows (including birthing cows, milking cows, Trini cows, and varieties of cow-speak), religion, philosophy, mysticism, and even spices. He can (and does) elaborate on all with a puckish, yet respectful, wit. As it turns out, we both had a lot to say, so our conversation is best presented as it happened. Afterall, Jiv is the source (a hilarious source), and – frequent illegible bovine impressions notwithstanding – that source tastes best unfiltered.
SesayArts: Take d Milk, Nah?…Very evocative title! In my mind, I can hear the tonal lilt and see the head tilt. What came first, the title or the play? Why this title?
JP: It’s hard to say. Practically, the play came first. But it wasn’t a play exactly. I first performed it as a story that didn’t need a title at Pressgang Theatre’s “Milestones” storytelling event. It was a night focussed on the general theme of major milestones in life, and for me that was the story of Birthing a Cow – or kind of Birthing a Cow, and an expansion of why that was so important for me. When I presented the piece at b current performing arts’ RPS festival in a slightly more theatrical version, I needed a title, and it seemed to be appropriate.
Further back though, the actual genesis of the title comes from an intense two-day road trip I took with my brother and sister-in-law. It was my niece’s first Christmas, and we decided that we would all drive down to Nova Scotia from Ontario to surprise my brother who lived there. On the drive down, we were hit with an immense blizzard somewhere between Quebec and New Brunswick. As we barrelled down a very slippery and icy highway – and having been walled up in a car together for a very long time – our conversation devolved to just making animal sounds. I do a pretty solid cow impression from spending time with cows in Trinidad. I don’t buy the whole cows say “moo” thing and am pretty adamant that at least cows with a Trini accent make a sound more like “Neeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaah!” So, then it turned into a “Trini Cow”, which we translated to basically be saying “Take d milk Naaaaaaaaah? Eh All’yuh, Come and Take d milk Naaaaaaaaaaah?” We did that for a very long time.
SesayArts: Considering Pandemic Theatre’s aim to create work that is “simultaneously dangerous… and… that responds to issues that effect and affect the larger common public,” what was the genesis of this work? How do its themes fulfill Pandemic’s aim?
JP: This isn’t what I’d call the most dangerous of Pandemic’s work, per se. Our last piece, at Summerworks, The Only Good Indian, was more in that vein. And what I would describe as our most dangerous piece Daughter, a co-production with QuipTake and The Theatre Centre, is premiering this November and certainly is more that route.
Take d Milk is softer . . . We [were] still in development and the version of the piece. . . at Caminos [was] a bit softer than the full production will be. But in some ways that softness is where the risk comes from. Specifically, as a male performer/creator I think there’s a tendency or an expectation to “go hard” – but this is more a story about family and identity and the borders are, well, more liminal.
It’s weird to say, but at its core, I’ve probably been more challenged in this piece than anything else I’ve ever worked on because it’s so deeply personal. And for a myriad of reasons, I don’t have the answers for the questions I have to ask myself. That’s a pretty painful thing to realize – that you don’t know why you are the way you are. And in that, there’s a link towards the affect of the common public. Take d Milk is engaging in diasporic themes of placelessness, you know? The pang of not belonging anywhere.
SesayArts: What do you hope the audience will talk about on the way home from seeing Take d Milk, Nah??
JP: At this phase, I’d be pretty happy if they came away reinvestigating their relationship with cows. Cause I think cows are awesome.
SesayArts: Can you fill us in on some ‘Hin-do’s and Hin-don’ts’ that have irked you growing up and their place in Take d Milk, Nah? (without spoilers, of course)?
JP: No spoilers – the hard part about Hinduism – maybe the best part – is that there is a lot of grey area. It’s a vast religion that’s not really a religion, more a composite of philosophies and customs and in my experience, there aren’t many rules besides the standard “BE GOOD!” But I guess the difference with Hinduism is that it’s more “BE GOOD!…Or you know, like, whatever… probably….I mean – do your best – it’ll all work out. Hey, you want some food? We got food. You should eat something. You do you, dude. You do you.”
I’m a Brahmin, which is often viewed as the highest caste. (Especially by Brahmins). That’s a privilege on a level that people unaffected by the caste system may not be able to understand. And I know that there are some people who, for very valid reasons, write me off for being a Brahmin, and others who listen more to what I have to say.
Personally, I think the caste system is archaic – quite a Hin-don’t, so to speak. It’s a rigid system that, to me, makes no sense in a philosophy that is so fluid. Some people blame occupiers like the British Raj for how it’s developed, but you can’t blame external forces for your own idiocy.
But – here’s the thing. My Hinduism – it’s not the same as all Hinduism. There is a kind of Hinduism that has become deeply interwoven with Nationalism. I want no part of that. That to me is the biggest Hin-don’t. Nationalism is a plague on the world. It creates borders. And to quote one of my biggest artistic influences Serj Tankian,“Borders are, the gallows of our collective national egos / Subjective, lines in sand / In the water separating everything / Fear is the cause of separation / Backed with illicit conversations / Procured by constant condemnations / National blood-painted persuasions.”
You wanna see the biggest Hin-don’t of them all? – look up Hindu Nationalism. Look up Hindutva – and you’ll find what for me is the biggest perversion of what Hindu philosophy teaches.
Practically, in a religion/philosophy that’s all about grey area, the biggest Hin-don’ts that irk me are when people try to state something to be a fact. Because truth is subjective.
But the one thing I share with some Hindutva – Cows are awesome. And you should never harm a cow.
SesayArts: Take d Milk, Nah? previewed at Caminos, a festival of new works-in-progress, last October….How has the work evolved over the last 6 months to the version audiences will experience during its run at Theatre Passe Muraille?
JP: It’s been quite a huge shift in a lot of ways, but it won’t present itself outright until the piece gets moving. What we found in a post-Caminos workshop was a major tension in the piece that was always slightly bubbling under the surface: That the idea of identity itself is actually the biggest “Hin-dont” – so to speak. Part of the deep dive into the complexities of the intersections of Indo-Caribbean identity, in my specific case, is the role that Hinduism has played in terms of community organizing in the political history of the country. So we had to ask ourselves how we would do a service to this in the piece?
And we tried a lot of different things! Telling more Hindu stories, giving a political history of Hinduism in Trinidad, incorporating the structure of worship into the piece. We tore the piece apart, and then put it back together again, and arrived at where we’re at now. And that is, a shift in the form. So it starts up similar to what folks would have seen before, taking a more radical move into embodying some of the philosophy theatrically. I think where we’re at now is a much more political piece in what we’re offering and also asking an audience to take part in.
But it’s still funny, it’s still weird – and the design has taken a huge step up. It’s the same team from the Caminos presentation working on the text – myself, Tom Arthur Davis, and Graham Isador. But we’ve also brought on designers Anahita Dehbonehie and Rebecca Vandevelde – with Heather Bellingham and Christopher Ross helping us keep it all together. We’ve also had the insight of Catherine Hernandez from b current performing arts, our producing partner, weighing in as we go.
Further because we’re planning ASL interpretation by Tamyka Bullen and Tala Jalili on April 20th, we’re undergoing the process of translating the script into American Sign Language, which brings a deeper process of reflection. Each one of these folks brings a perspective that has both supported and challenged what we’re working on, and so now we have had what I think always makes a “Pandemic” project great: a highly collaborative room with many perspectives. The best part is [that,] even after we open, the show has room to change with every audience, and by the time we hit our Audio Described performance, we’ll have gone through another translation of the project to create a performance for blind and low-sighted audiences.
Every step keeps it going – so for now – we’re pretty psyched to be showing it to folks. It’s a show that really thrives on an audience and being together – so now it’s time for it to actually come to life.
SesayArts: The ‘About’ page of the Pandemic Theatre website has “Another world is possible.” in stand-alone prominence…Ideally, what kind of world do you hope that Take d Milk, Nah? will help to inspire?
JP: That quote comes from a Zapatista philosophy. It’s what drives all of what we do at Pandemic. We believe that the role of art is to stimulate alternative ways of thinking. When it comes to Take d Milk, Nah?, I’m hoping that we can inspire a more holistic thinking of religion and resistance that can transcend nationalistic tendencies. It’s a pretty lofty goal. But hey, if we don’t get it this time, maybe in the next incarnation.
SesayArts: What would you like to add that I haven’t asked?
JP: Nah, I just talked a ton. Play’s funny though! I make cow sounds!
Jiv Takes 3
Well… probably Hing. Or Asafoetida. It’s a basic spice you can pick up from Carlos’s House of Spice in Kensington, or any Indian grocer. It’s like MSG except natural. I think. Well, I choose to think. Honestly, I don’t care. That stuff is brilliant.
They’re quite excited about it. Too excited, considering they don’t know that much about it. But such is the South Asian way.
I can fly a helicopter. Nah, that’s not true. But I saw one once.
I once drank only milk for two weeks…. In my Adult Life.
News You Can Use
What: Take d Milk, Nah? created and performed by Jivesh Parasram; Directed by Tom Arthur Davis; Dramaturgy by Graham Isador; co-produced by Pandemic Theatre & b current performing arts, with the support of Theatre Passe Muraille
When: April 10–22, 2018
Where: Theatre Passe Muraille, 16 Ryerson Avenue, Toronto, ON
Info and tickets: passemuraille.ca and 416.504.8989
© 2018 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya