Touchstone Theatre and Diwali Fest present Anusree Roy's Brothel #9

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Brothel #9 by Anusree Roy | presented by Touchstone Theatre and Diwali Fest  

The Cultch’s Vancity Culture Lab | November 17 – 27, 2016

For a play about sex slavery in Calcutta, there was at times too much joviality in Anusree Roy’s Brothel #9, but the complicated relationships between the four main characters are what keep this story endlessly interesting while producing a constant tension.

Rekha (Adele Noronha) arrives in Calcutta at what she thinks to be a light bulb factory. Her innocent eyes are lit up with the hope of a good job and a fresh start in a new city. She quickly finds out that she has been sold by her brother-in-law into sex slavery and that Jamuna (Laara Sadiq), a fellow sex slave and the only woman who she can confide in, has completely submitted herself to her new reality and is not interested in Rekha’s pleas for help.

Birbal (David Adams) the pimp who operates the sex slave business has a complex relationship with Jamuna. Even though Birbal is the cause of all her suffering and holds her against her will to exploit her for profit, she treats him with respect, cooks for him, and even shows him sympathy when he tells her that his wife is ill. He does not seem to realize the way his love of his wife and his business endeavours contradict each other.

Roy’s writing is full of scenes that tug at your emotions and raise questions about empathy and survival. Right after her arrival, Jamuna offers Rekha up as fresh meat to a local policeman and regular client, Salaudin (Shekhar Paleja). Rekha is forced to “service” him, and as he rapes her the audience held its breath listening to the pained cries coming from her room #9. Despite the endless suffering and daily violation of her body, Rekha never loses hope that she will be able to escape. She starts saving all her earnings and plans to flee when the time is right.

Salaudin visits Jamuna every Tuesday and Thursday, but after he begins visiting Rekha regularly, Jamuna becomes jealous and their relationship gains an added layer of tension, often becoming violent. Jamuna’s past repeats itself with Rekha, and the most difficult scene to watch in this dark play was Jamuna describing what she had done when she became pregnant.

While in a completely foreign setting, the characters offer different approaches to coping with their circumstances, responses that we can relate to. Jamuna forges ahead, keeping busy, drinking plenty of her “coloured water” (alcohol), and concerning herself with her cooking and daily routine so as to not think about her reality. Rekha remains steadfast, determined to change her circumstances. Both Noronha and Sadiq gave nuanced, emotionally fraught performances; they drew me into their world.

The beautiful, detailed set by Drew Facey and costumes by Farnaz Khaki-Sadigh created an immersive space in the intimate Vancity Culture Lab. Along with the thick Calcutta accents, it felt as if we were transported to an Indian slum.

The way Roy layers new elements of tension onto an already fraught situation gives this play continued momentum and kept me intrigued right up until the final moments. While I think the humanizing of Birpal and Salaudin may have gone too far, it serves to complicate their relationships even further and get the audience thinking, which is what all good theatre should do.   

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