Pamela Mala Sinha’s play New received its debut in Toronto at the Berkeley St. Theatre. It is an interesting play dealing with topics that are of great interest to immigrants. The issue for most newcomers to Canada is the pull of the old country where the immigrants try to maintain the traditions and customs they were raised with, on one hand, and the desire to integrate but not assimilate with the culture of the older Canadians.
Sinha has chosen to base her play on a specific group of well-educated Indians who lived in Winnipeg in 1970. There are three couples, Ash and Aisha, Sachin and Sita and Qasim and… well, this where the complications begin. Qasim is a doctor and is in love with Abby, a non-Indian nurse. We learn in the opening scene of the play that Qasim is getting into a long-distance marriage with Nuzha, a woman in India whom he has never met. His mother has arranged the marriage and convinced or is it emotionally blackmailed Qasim into marrying the woman.
As we can imagine Qasim is not keen on marrying the unknown woman but his mother knew which buttons to push to get her way. He displays his lack of enthusiasm by refusing to consummate the marriage.
We also have Ash (Shelly Antony) and Aisha (Dalal Badr) who have issues of their own. Aisha wants to have a child but she knows that she cannot do it alone. Ash is uncooperative, to put it politely, and he becomes attracted to Nuzha and this could lead to many complications.
Then there is Sachin (Fuad Ahmed) and Sita (Pamela Mala Sinha, the author) who are traumatized by their still-born child. These are serious and at times heart-wrenching problems among the three couples that do not lend themselves easily to Neil Simonesque repartee. There are a few belly laughs but they do not dominate the play.
Three couples with various issues and Abby, the third member of of the Qasim-Abby-Nuzha triangle, whose problems will entertain us and must be resolved before the end of the show. We should note that all of them are well-educated and far from any stereotypical Indian that we may be tempted to imagine.
The most interesting character is Nuzha, a woman thrown into a strange land with a “husband” who refuses to go near her. She is no fool and starts learning about getting around Winnipeg and searching for cultural and educational outlets. We admire her gumption in a situation where she has become a “ruined” woman and cannot return to India and is in a terrible relationship in Canada.
We sympathize to some extent with Qasim’s quandary as he paints a grim picture of his mother’s sacrifices to raise him and her primordial desire to see him marry and provide her with grandchildren. We may have some difficulty understanding him or her but that is a sign of our ignorance of their cultural background and not of the legitimacy of Qasim’s mother’s feelings and her son’s agreement to please her.
The play does touch on the deep religious and political differences that have torn India since its partition after getting rid of British rule but my understanding of it may be perfunctory.
As I said, New offers scope for comedy and there are some great laughs but not enough. The acoustics of the Berkeley Street Theatre do not help because the speakers often sound as if they are in a cave.
The acting is excellent and enjoyable. Mirabella Sundar Singh makes a very affecting and admirably courageous Nuzha. Ali Kazmi as Qasim is a distraught man in an impossible situation who gets our sympathy and our anger. His treatment of Abby (Alicia Johnson) and Nuzha make high demands on the actor. Fuad Ahmed as Sachin, the author as Sita, Shelly Antony as Ash and Dalal Badr as Aisha deserve unstinting praise for their performances.
Sinha has cut the play into numerous scenes and the lights go down for a scene change with the names of the location of the scene displayed in large letters above the playing area. It is all done in one set (kitchen, living room, bedroom, designed by Lorenzo Savoini) and one wonders if the flow of the action would not have gained significantly without so many changes.
Alan Dilworth does a fine job directing but there is little he can do with the numerous scene changes that slow the action down. New is a production of Necessary Angel Theatre Company in association with Canadian Stage and the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre. It premiered in Winnipeg.
There is a growing body of plays based on the life of immigrants in Canada but by no means enough. This is the first one that I have seen about Indian immigrants and I hope it is not the only one that has been produced. Let’s say we need more from the numerous ethnic, religious and cultural groups that make up what we like to describe as a multi-cultural nation.
New by Pamela Mala Sinha continues until May 14, 2023, at the Berkeley Street Theatre Toronto, Ontario. https://www.necessaryangel.com/