Theatre Survey

Critical Stages: Edited by Mike Sell

SOUTH ASIAN AMERICAN THEATRE: (UN/RE-)PAINTING THE TOWN BROWN

Sudipto Chatterjee

In his second year at the University of California, Berkeley, Arthur William Ryder (1877–1938), the Ohio-born Harvard scholar of Sanskrit language and literature, collaborated with the campus English Club and Garnet Holme, an English actor, to stage Ryder's translation of the Sanskrit classic Mrichchhakatikam, by Shudraka, as The Little Clay Cart. The 1907 production was described as “presented in true Hindu style. Under the direction of Garnet Holme, who … studied with Swamis of San Francisco … [and] the assistance of many Indian students of the university.” However, in the twenty-five-plus cast, there was not a single Indian actor with a speaking part. The intended objective was grandeur, and the production achieved that with elaborate sets and costumes, two live zebras, and elephants. Seven years later, the Ryder–Holme team returned with Ryder's translation of Kalidasa's Shakuntala, “bear cubs, a fawn, peacocks, and an onstage lotus pool with two real waterfalls.” While the archival materials do not indicate the involvement of any Indian actors (barring one Gobind B. Lal, who enacted the Prologue), its importance is evinced by the coverage it received in the Oakland Tribune, the Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine, and the Los Angeles Times.

Sudipto Chatterjee is a theatre scholar and performance maker. Currently teaching at Loughborough University in the U.K., he has taught at New York University, Tufts University, and University of California, Berkeley. His book, The Colonial Staged: Theatre in Colonial Calcutta, has been published by Seagull Books (2007). As theatre maker, he has directed Nuraldeen's Lifetime in New York and India. Most recently, he wrote and solo-performed Man of the Heart: The Life and Times of Lalon Phokir, which has been seen in California, New York, and India. As documentary maker, Chatterjee has recently completed Epic Women: Pandvani Solo-Performers of Chhattisgarh.