Innocent until proven brown
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A quick question: Would you think twice about typing "al-Qaeda" into Google? When word arrived that Theatre Rhino had booked a show that includes the name of the infamous terrorist organization in its title, I admit I had a tiny gulp moment before researching the show on the Internet.
"That's funny," said Snehal Desai when I told him about my brush with Big Brother paranoia, "because I actually talk about that in the show. I tell the audience that as soon as you called for tickets, you're now on the list with me. It's funny, but sad and scary, too."
Desai is the author and performer of Finding Ways to Prove You're NOT an al-Qaeda Terrorist When You're Brown (and other stories of the gindian), opening a five-performance run on Aug. 13 at Theatre Rhino. "Gindian," by the way, is a slang term for a gay Indian man, or, in the case of Desai, a gay Indian-American.
When Desai's parents immigrated from India, they wound up in a small Pennsylvania borough with the decidedly un-Indian name of Quakertown. That he was one of the few South Asians in school followed him all the way to the Yale School of Drama, where he was alone with his particular hyphenation.
"I wanted to do work that speaks to the South Asian community as well as the gay community, and I wasn't finding the playwrights out there," he said. "So I started to write these monologues, and they began to take a shape around a character named Akash."
The fictional Akash is a closeted Indian-American from rural Nebraska who sets out on a journey of self-discovery that eventually takes him to India. But there's a twist. Desai not only portrays Akash, but also the performer who is trying to do this one-man show despite a series of interruptions.
"The performer is telling the story of Akash, which is a traditional coming-out story in many ways, but he is constantly forced to confront the fact that he himself is not out at all in terms of his sexuality," Desai said. "What makes this a theatrical experience rather than just a stand-up act or storytelling is that there is an active event happening in the theater."
That was one of the things he learned in classes he took with Lisa (The Five Lesbian Brothers) Kron at Yale. Theatre Rhino Artistic Director John Fisher was also teaching at Yale at the time, and he heard about Desai's initial performance of Finding Ways as part of the student-run Yale Cabaret series, leading to the invitation to perform it in San Francisco.
Since then, Desai has presented the piece in New York in a March workshop for Pan Asian Rep, and then as part of the Fresh Fruit Festival last month. "I've been constantly developing the show, and one of the newest things I've updated came from an experience I had last week. I got stopped and searched while taking the subway on my way to do the show, which I'm used to, but in this case I had 500 postcards that said Finding Ways to Prove You're NOT an al-Qaeda Terrorist, which I thought would make the officer laugh. But it was like, why do you feel the need to prove you're not a terrorist?"
Desai, 28, moved to New York in the spring after getting his MFA from Yale in directing. "The funny thing is that I was trained to be a director, but this show has really taken off. The directing part of my career is actually on hold."
He's a frequent visitor to India, where he has close family, and he finds that in some ways the issues of sexuality have loosened up more there than among the wave of immigrants who came to the United States in the 1970s. "The people who immigrate tend to freeze their values in time, while the clock is still progressing forward for people like my cousins in India."
Desai, who applied to both law school and drama school, said his parents were supportive of his decision to go with the theater. But he is reluctant to discuss his parents' feelings about his sexuality. "It's a sensitive topic for them," he said.
But, he acknowledged, there is a certain irony that he is now performing a play about being gay Ñ even if he's portraying characters who are not ostensibly autobiographical.
"As an artist, I deal with political issues, like race or class or sexual orientation, but the difference is I'm usually on the other side as the director, and someone else is playing these characters and telling these stories. Now I'm kind of putting my money where my mouth is."
Finding Ways to Prove You're NOT an al-Qaeda Terrorist When You're Brown (and other stories of the gindian) will run Aug. 13-16 at Theatre Rhino. Tickets are $15. Call 861-5079 or go to www.therhino.org.