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Inside Beat

South Asian Theatre Festival showcases, celebrates cultural diversity, inclusivity

Dan Swern, co-founder of coLAB Arts, is among the filmmakers igniting important dialogues through their work with the South Asian Theatre Festival. – Photo by Arishita Gupta

In just a little more than a month, the 19th annual South Asian Theatre Festival, presented by Epic Actors' Workshop, will return to the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center.

The event, split between July 13 and July 14, features works that showcase various tales and identities of the South Asian diaspora. Each explores a variety of narratives, from stories that draw inspiration from realistic situations to satirical performances designed to invoke introspection within members of the audience.

Creative directors and leaders gave a glimpse of what inspired each piece at an event on Sunday hosted by coLAB Arts, a New Brunswick-based non-profit dedicated to using the arts to inspire and facilitate social change.

"Refugees" - Rafaela Sepulveda and Sri Alathur (ICS Theatre)

This year, the Indian Cultural Society (ICS) Theatre brings inclusivity to the table not only in the form of South Asian representation but also by celebrating the talents of young women and neurodivergent individuals.

"Refugees" brings attention to the stories of its namesake through the journey of a Turkish peddler who supports a young girl as she seeks asylum. The film was conceptualized by Sepulveda, a member of the ICS's Emerging Artists Program for creatives who are in seventh to 12th grade.

The play will feature neurodivergent performers, a facet that required making certain accommodations. This turned out to be an incredible opportunity to bring creatives from the community to the spotlight, according to Alathur.

"Inclusion came first, and then the production," Alathur said. "All in all, it is about hopes, dreams, and it resonates with the audience in a way that they are able to identify … At the end of the day, all of us are refugees at some point."

"Project Aid Access" - Dan Swern (coLAB Arts)

Swern guides the audience through an informative and timely piece titled "Project Aid Access," combining the voices of abortion seekers and providers, especially as access to abortion and other forms of reproductive care becomes increasingly restricted nationwide.

The piece explores the nuances and definitions of womanhood and motherhood through individuals who navigate self-administered abortions with the support of Aid Access, a Dutch organization supporting those who need abortions in American regions that no longer allow them.

This work also opens the door to conversations about the role wealth plays in accessing these services, an issue that can hit home for many members of the New Brunswick community.

"I approached this story … very much from a place where access to any kind of medical procedure, any kind of medical condition, really is relegated to those who can afford it," Swern said. "Abortion access is not a restriction for those who are the elite, those who are the most affluent … Our most vulnerable are those who are most pained by our restrictive policies."

"Na Nahaye Bahadur" - Santosh Tiwari and Ameeya Mehta (Prayog Theater Group)

"Na Nahaye Bahadur," one of the festival's only Hindi productions this year, shines a light on the challenges associated with the Indian judicial system. The project examines a surprising case — a woman attempts to seek legal relief from her husband after he refuses to shower for 13 months.

Despite its seemingly unserious premise, the film confronts weighty themes of perseverance and determination.

"It's based on a real-life story of someone and how that person fights this whole thing and this whole situation," a member of the team said. "How does he come out of it? Does he win?"

"Shambo" - Nilanjan Mitra Thakur and Charles Burks (Tri-State Bengali Cultural Association)

"Shambo," like many other works in this year's festival, exemplifies the beauty that can arise from tragedy. Playwright Thakur explained that the idea for "Shambo" was born from an incident in which his friend died from a heart attack.

The shock that came from the news and the fact that Thakur had spoken to this friend days before his sudden death moved him to consider in what ways his friend's family and community would reconcile with his death and survive.

"He was the only earning member there. So, then I started thinking, and it's like, 'an Indian immigrant came over here for job and (left) his roots over there,'" he said. "'What will happen to their family there?' That actually took me some time to absorb … the story of the next generation ... if they don't have (a) kind of support system."

These considerations brought him to revive the story of the mythological figure from whom the play takes its name.

Burks, the director who helped breathe life into "Shambo," expanded upon Thakur's description by applying the name to a poetic depiction of personal development. He explained that a name can begin as a tool to portray disappointment but eventually translate into a label of pride or recognition as a legacy is created.

"Didi IAS" - Mrinal Mathur and Pinaki Datta (Epic Actors' Workshop)

"Didi IAS" will close off this year's festival in the form of a satire, utilizing a light-hearted tone to invite its audience into a more serious discussion about what happens when creativity is censored or restricted. The play draws inspiration from the realities of Indian politics.

Datta chose not to divulge much beyond this description, simply alluding to the portrayal of a drastic choice creatives must make between their human needs and experiences and their commitment to their art.

The South Asian Theatre Festival collectively promises an expansive look into South Asian identity, encompassing individuals from South Asia itself, second-generation residents of the U.S. and migrants. The Festival continues to dispel misunderstandings and judgments that persist about this community, broaching difficult topics and making them easier to approach.

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