At The Cultch until November 27, 2016
Posted November 23, 2016
It’s appalling to consider that in 2016 a young girl from a good middle-class family can still be sold into the Calcutta (now Kolkata) sex trade by her brother-in-law. And while the amount of money he received for his sister isn’t really material, 2100 Indian rupees (about $40 CDN) is such a pittance in exchange for all her pain, all her humiliation, all her suffering.
Brothel #9, a shocker from beginning to end, has the ring of authenticity to it beginning with Drew Facey’s remarkable set that spans the entire width of the Vancity Culture Lab at The Cultch: shabby, weathered wooden walls, street litter, a concrete sink and doors leading into two rooms (#3 and #9) where the brothel’s clients are serviced.
Rekha (Adele Noronha) has been led by her brother-in-law to believe she has left her village to work in a Kolkata light bulb factory owned by Birbal (David Adams). She arrives excited at the prospect of her first job only to realize she has been sold into prostitution. Within hours she has been brutally raped by Salaudin (Shekhar Paleja), a corrupt cop who sells protection to Birbal and Jamuna (Laara Sadiq), an older prostitute who manages the brothel. As well as handing over money to Salaudin, Jamuna services him every Tuesday and Thursday and gives him each new girl to deflower as her gift to him.
An ugly, dangerous triangle quickly arises: Jamuna, Salaudin and young Rekha.
Shocking as the material is, the performances are superb and they carry the sordid story to its almost hopeful conclusion.
Laara Sadiq only gets better and better and playwright Anusree Roy gives her an amazing character to flesh out. While generally tough talking, quick-tempered and unsympathetic, Jamuna has moments of genuine compassion especially toward Birbal whose wife is dying. And there are times, however brief, that Jamuna feels sorry for Rekha. As Jamuna, Sadiq has as many colours as the various saris (by costume designer Farnaz Khaki-Sadigh) her character wears: fierce, violent, passionate, devastated, humiliated and grovelling. Really hard to watch is Jamuna, in a last ditch attempt to hang on to Salaudin, lifting her sari and offering her genitals/pubic hair and a BIC lighter to him: “Burn me.” Even more moving is Sadiq, as Jamuna, recounting the death of the two infants her character bore. It’s enough to make you weep.
Balancing all that toughness is Adele Noronha whose bright-eyed, girlish Rekha is soon transformed into pragmatic, plotting Rekha. Noronha makes the moments after Rekha’s rape so believable, it’s hard to watch: crying, hair and clothing in disarray, clutching between her legs, frantically trying to wash herself. But as time passes, Rekha begins to flaunt her youth thereby kindling animosity between herself and Jamuna.
Shekhar Paleja’s Salaudin is what you would expect: a strutting, cocksure, self-satisfied bastard. Even here, though, the playwright offers a small concession: Salaudin has a soft spot for his little son.
David Adams brings remarkable humanity to what is, in fact, inhuman. Birbal buys young girls, hunts them down when they escape, takes most of the money they make yet Adams brings a little playfulness to the role. Everyone here is just staying alive by using his or her wits. It’s ugly, but it’s the world they live in.
Munish Sharma plays all the clients from the one who expects rough sex with Jamuna and an easy-going American to what appears to be a Brahmin.
Very sensitively directed by Katrina Dunn for Touchstone Theatre and part of Diwali Fest, Brothel #9 isn’t easy to watch but it feels disturbingly honest and real. It’s a deeply affecting piece of theatre, a window on a world that we would prefer not to know exists. And not only in Kolkata.
A play like Brothel #9 is a reminder that we won the lucky-to-live-in-Canada lottery. As for Canadian values, we all know – even those involved in the sex trade – that what happened to Rekha in Anusree Roy’s play is a crime for which there is no excuse, no forgiveness.