Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending a play called Brothel #9 at Toronto’s Factory Theatre. Brothel #9, by Anusree Roy, is a riveting play that follows the story of Rekha, a young Indian girl sold into prostitution in Calcutta. It brings the struggles of sex workers in India to life, touching on the degraded living conditions, the corruption within state institutions (like the police), and the personal challenges that lie at the heart of humanity, and womanhood in particular, including personal physical autonomy, sex, pregnancy, and abortion. Immersing the audience in the Hindi language, clothing, music, culture, living conditions, and food, Roy brings a true multicultural experience to the Torontonian’s theatre palette.
According to the post-play discussion “talk-back” with the actors, Brothel #9 was inspired by Roy’s visit to India, where she met a sex worker. Interested in the woman’s story, Roy travelled to brothels across India conducting interviews. In her discussion, she said, “I asked to tour a brothel and they told me to have 20,000 rupees on me when I came to visit. I asked, ‘It is for the sex workers?’ I was told, ‘No, it is for the police. If they do a raid, you will need the money to bribe them.’” Roy’s experiences in India impassioned her to bring a voice and life to the stories hidden in squalor in this beautiful but troubled part of the world. Her play, by touching on difficult themes, appeals to the human condition.
During the talk-back, an audience member mentioned that, although the Indian accents were authentic, she found it challenging to understand the actors. The actors spoke only a tiny bit of Hindi, but I found the infusion of Hindi to be a wonderful addition to the play — not only to increase the cultural experience, but also, as some friends explained, to emphasize the choice of Hindi words and their meanings in English. Unfortunately, if an individual didn’t know Hindi, they might have trouble connecting with some parts of the play. Even Indian pop cultural references to film actresses made throughout the play — Rekha and Kajol (both recognized actresses in the Bollywood film industry) — would be lost on the average viewer who wasn’t familiar with Indian entertainment culture.
Despite this challenge, it is important to note that this play is a play not about India or Indian culture exactly, but a play about humanity and womanhood, about compassion and personal autonomy, and about bringing to light the universal issues that women — not just Indian women, but women in general — face around the world, that threaten physical and personal safety. Those messages transcend the confusions that arise from cultural ignorance, and while I believe an audience should come educated before watching a play with such cultural palpability, the cultural ignorance itself still plays into the message of the play. It doesn’t matter if you don’t fully understand the culture of the play. Brothel #9 is about helping the audience to look beyond culture and ethnicity to see human beings, women, and oneself, and recognize that those who may seem foreign are, in fact, just like us. They deserve our time, our compassion, and our empathy – and, as Roy notes, they deserve to be heard.
Factory theatre is located at 125 Bathurst Street, Toronto, ON. To see their current productions, check out their website. Ticket prices vary depending on the show. You can contact their Box Office at (416) 504-9971 or at firstname.lastname@example.org .