A mother and son put the audience in the middle of an emotional dispute on the Tarragon stage, and it's good fun.
Early in Ravi and Asha Jain’s performance of A Brimful of Asha—after the audience has grabbed a veggie samosa from a stacked platter and taken their seat, that is—the matriarch of the Jain clan explains the major difference between herself and her 32-year-old, real-life son.
“I am Indian. Ravi is Canadian,” she says.
Theirs is a clash of cultures, values, and generations that applies to thousands of other families in the GTA, only Asha and Ravi are airing it out for 90 minutes in front of theatregoing audiences at Tarragon night after night. A Brimful of Asha is less of a play and more of a therapy session that pits Ravi, a professional actor, against Asha, a self-described housewife, in a debate over the meaning of marriage.
Born and raised in Etobicoke, Ravi is of the North American mindset. He thinks of marriage as an important step that should come after years of dating and falling in love with a partner of his choosing. His parents, on the other hand, would prefer to have a larger role in Ravi’s love life, as is customary in their native country, India. As mother and son explain, this conflict came to a head during a trip to India in 2007, when Ravi intended to do some theatre workshopping and adventuring with a friend, but Asha and her husband had very different plans.
As a celebrated actor, director, playwright, and Artistic Director of Why Not Theatre, a Toronto theatre company that specializes in cross-cultural work, Ravi Jain is a leader in promoting theatre that speaks directly to Toronto’s diverse audiences. His recent work—including A Brimful of Asha, SPENT, and Greenland—even won him the Pauline McGibbon award at this year’s Dora Awards. His comfort on the stage, his friendly disposition, and his knack for storytelling make him a good-natured narrator, and a helpful guide into the Indian customs of courtship for those unfamiliar with the culture.
But it’s not called A Brimful of Ravi, after all. Asha, who has never acted before, is an incredibly refreshing presence on the stage precisely for that reason. Some lines come off stiffer and more rehearsed than others, of course, but that makes her dry sense of humour and her stubbornness all the more hilarious and charming. She gets laughs when she tells her son not to sit on the table because it blocks the audience’s view of her, but the no-nonsense add-on, “And you don’t sit on the table,” really sends it home. Her lack of showmanship, especially useful in Tarragon’s smaller studio space, heightens the show’s humour, gravity, and lends real legitimacy to startlingly old-fashioned views on love, marriage, life, and Ravi’s profession in theatre (which Asha has been chastised for “encouraging” by doing this smash-hit show).
Somehow, after four years of development and an extended run during last year’s Tarragon season, Ravi and Asha are able to keep their banter fresh (including one excellent “binders full of women” reference, a gift from Mitt Romney to the Jains). Theirs might be a clash distinctive to their particular culture, but family squabbles are universal. And this mother and son are a fine lesson in how to overcome them without ripping the family apart. With the holidays coming up, there’s no better time to learn it.