Anusree Roy as the morally dubious Jamuna. Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh.
Playwright/performer Anusree Roy first appeared on our radar back in 2007 with a little one-woman show called Pyaasa, which played for a very short run at Passe Muraille, and just happened to pick up Doras for Best New Play and Best Performance by a Female in the Independent Theatre division. Since then, she’s been a very hot commodity indeed, touring Pyaasa, debuting her new shows Letters to my Grandma and Roshni (both also at Passe Muraille), holding residencies at the Canadian Stage and Stratford, and winning the RBC Emerging Artist Award in 2009 and the K. M. Hunter Award just this week. Already very well-established for such a young artist, Roy has now also made a different kind of debut with Brothel # 9, which just opened at Factory Theatre. Her past shows have been solo performances (with the exception of Roshni, a two-hander), but this time she brings us a two-act, four-character, main-stage production, complete with a gorgeous naturalistic set by Shawn Kerwin. Does she pull off what’s probably her most ambitious project yet?
Brothel #9 sits very comfortably in Roy’s storytelling oeuvre: it’s all about poor people in desperate situations in the slums of Calcutta. Tales of corruption and human suffering in India are nothing new—they make up a huge chunk of Indian English literature, not to mention a certain so-called “feel-good film of the decade“—but Roy manages to mine material that feels more fresh than familiar.
We begin with Roy as Jamuna, a woman squatting in front of a small stove and making her dinner in a photogenically turquoise slum. When a man named Birbal comes to ask to share her food, she bickers with him in an appealingly sassy way. Enter Rekha, a beautiful young woman whose brother-in-law says he’s found her a job in a factory in Calcutta. She’s naïve and optimistic (not to mention virginal), and doesn’t realize that believing him is the worst mistake of her life until it’s much too late. Her brother-in-law has actually sold her to Birbal, a pimp, for 2,100 rupees, and even before she sets foot in the eponymous Brothel #9, the life she once knew has already been lost in an irrecoverable way.
The horror and nightmarishness of the scenario is undercut by how mundane it is. Jamuna, who has been “servicing” since she was a teenager, remains likeably grumpy and matter-of-fact even as she tells Rekha there can be no hope of escape, ever. When police officer Salaudin enters the brothel, Rekha thinks she is saved, until Jamuna reveals that Salaudin is one of her best clients and offers him first crack at “the new girl.” There’s something especially horrific about seeing one woman callously sending another to be raped, but Jamuna doesn’t see it that way and seems to honestly believe she is doing Rekha a favour by setting her up with a well-paying client. And so begins a series of events that will bring little joy to any of the play’s four characters.
Pamela Sinha does great work as Rekha, who transforms from weeping naif to cold, determined woman over the course of the evening. She reminds us of a Tennessee Williams heroine like Orpheus Descending‘s Lady Torrance or even Streetcar‘s Blanche Dubois: a targeted woman in a dangerous situation who is at times weak, at times surprisingly strong, but is guaranteed to have every last one of her illusions shattered before the night is through. But surely the performance everyone will be talking about is Roy’s turn as Jamuna, who is either Brothel #9‘s anti-hero or one of the more compelling and three-dimensional villains we’ve seen in recent memory. From her matronly bossiness in the running of the brothel, to her bitter jealousy as favourite client Salaudin becomes more enamoured with Rekha, to the haunting act-two speech she delivers (rendering the audience pin-drop silent), Roy absolutely commands every second she appears on stage.
It’s exciting to see a new work with a wonderful cast and fabulous drama that manages to tackle a huge issue like sex trafficking in such a simple, eye-opening, and relate-able way. Brothel #9 deserves to be seen. Who knows? Roy may have just stumbled upon a future Canadian classic.
Brothel #9 runs at Factory Theatre until March 27. Showtime and ticket information is available here.