My favorite play is The Indian Wants the Bronx by Israel Horovitz.
In this play, a man from India travels to New York City to visit his son, who lives in the Bronx. The man cannot speak English and he quickly gets lost. He finds himself stranded in a tough neighborhood in Manhattan.
He meets two teenage boys who begin teasing him. But he cannot understand them and can only speak to them in Hindi. As the evening progresses, the boys begin to get annoyed, then violent. The latter half of the play consists of the teens terrorizing and eventually assaulting the Indian man.
When I first began acting, at the age of 30, I knew that I wanted to play that Indian man. Each week I would faithfully scour websites and the local trade papers, hoping to find an audition for The Indian Wants the Bronx.
One day I was thrilled to spot the audition I’d been looking for. I called the number and set up an appointment. For the next few days I brushed up on my audition monologues and voraciously studied my already dog-eared copy of the play.
At the audition, I performed my monologues and read some lines from the play. As far as I could tell, I auditioned well.
The company called me a few days later to tell me I did not get the part.
Though I was disappointed, of course I wanted to see the production. So weeks later, I bought a ticket and went to see the show. I was excited to see which actor had been cast, and how he would handle the role. I already felt a special kinship with the actor since I had studied the role so thoroughly. I arrived just as the show was about to begin.
The lights came up and I was jolted by the sight of a young Caucasian actor playing the part of the Indian. Soon the teenage boys appeared on stage, also played by young Caucasian actors.
After a few seconds of processing, I decided to give this production a chance. Perhaps this actor playing the Indian would prove to be a better choice for the role than I would have been.
But as I watched the play, I concluded that the man onstage was no better an actor than I was.
And his attempt at speaking Hindi was unconvincing.
In this play, the Indian man speaks only in Hindi. The script contains his lines in English, along with phonetic pronunciations (using English letters and punctuation) of the Hindi translations of those lines. For example, his line “I cannot speak your language; I don’t understand,” is shown in English, and also translated phonetically into Hindi as “Mai toom-haree bo-lee nah-hee bol sak-tah; mai tum-hah ree bah-sha nah-hee sah-maj-tah.” Thus, even the non-Hindi-speaking actor can speak all of the lines in an approximation of Hindi.
But this actor’s dialogue sounded exactly like what it was: a rote, phonetic pronunciation of Hindi by a man who had no understanding of the music of a spoken Indian language.
As I watched this play, at first I felt a wave of sadness slowly come over me. This was not just about me. This was not just my disappointment over not getting a part. There were countless roles out there for Caucasian actors, and almost no roles for Indian actors. And here was a part that specifically called for an Indian, and it was given to a Caucasian.
Later in the play, I began to realize that my wish actually had been fulfilled. I was the Indian in The Indian Wants the Bronx.
I was a man who had something to say but lacked the opportunity to say it.
During the seven years since that experience, I have acted on stage hundreds of times. And I’ve written music and comedy that has been produced on stages throughout the country.
And here is what I’ve learned: As minority artists, we must create opportunities for ourselves and for one another.
We create opportunities by simply doing the artistic work faithfully despite the obstacles. And doing so with no promise of success. And doing so not for months, but for years.
The wise stonecutter knows that even though the stone may only crack on the 100th tap, it is really the 99 previous taps that make the breakthrough possible.
Like that stonecutter, minority artists must commit to the work—no matter how many doors slam shut. Because with every song we write, every dance we create, and every line we speak on a stage, we add a bit of momentum to the cause of minority artists everywhere. And this ever-increasing momentum will slowly create more and more opportunities for future minority artists.
Having pursued nonprofit social-justice work full-time for several years, I at first felt a bit guilty when I started working full-time in theater. I thought I was being selfish and just doing something that was “fun” but did not truly benefit anybody else. But as I’ve grown to appreciate the importance of theater and other arts, I’ve come to realize that this mission of creating opportunity for other minority artists is just as worthwhile as any other work I’ve ever done.
Today I still have great affection for the Indian man in The Indian Wants the Bronx.
But he and I are not quite so similar anymore.
Ranjit Souri ([email protected]) is general manager of The Second City Training Center in Chicago. He is also artistic director of Stir-Friday Night!, a touring Asian-American comedy troupe.