By Winston Soon
The first thing that draws you into Anusaree Roy’s Brothel #9 is the brothel itself. With an amazing set created by Shawn Kerwin, you are immediately transported into the inner heart of a Calcutta ghetto, complete with hanging laundry and several colours of hard living adorning the walls. Your journey into their world is immediate; first with the set, and then with playwright and lead actress Annusaree’s Roy’s colourful dialogue, delivered while she sits on the floor and prepares a dinner of fish.
Joining me for this performance is a dear friend, Wanda. Wanda has had a rough year; she lost her husband and is parenting a two year old on her own, which might be why one of her first comments after the show was “I liked it because their lives are worse than mine.” Their lives are definitely worse than ours, we know this going in. With movies like Slumdog Millionaire and Born into Brothels now part of North American vernacular, we know a play about an Indian brothel will likely have its share of heartache.
Roy is Jamuna, a prostitute and madam that approaches her life with a type of sturdy resignation. She knows what she is, she knows what the life is, and when the money is good, she gets to eat fish. Rehka, played by Pamela Sinha, is the new girl in the brothel who thinks she is going to make money working in the city making lightbulbs. This is the lie told her by her brother-in-law who has actually sold her to this brothel’s pimp Birbal (Ash Knight), who comes from a long lineage of pimps. Rounding out the cast is Sanjay Talwar as Salaudin, a police officer and regular customer to the Brothel.
If you have ever been to this part of the world, you know that space – especially in crowded cities like Calcutta – is at a real premium. The set is gorgeous, the performances are mostly strong, and the number of prostitutes are….two?
Two prostitutes in one Calcutta brothel the size of the Factory stage? I found this aspect of the show the hardest to buy. There is never any mention of other girls in the space although the two male actors pull off a great montage to show the number of men the women “service.” Somehow this play about Indian poverty has managed to include a vastness that feels sparsely Canadian. I realize budgets are such that it is hard to overpopulate a cast but a brothel should feel like…a brothel.
The other aspect that I had a hard time wrapping my mind around is the emoting of Rehka toward the beginning. Overly innocent and trusting, we know this isn’t going to go well for her. When she realizes what is going to happen to her, the shrieking and crying begins and goes on, and on. She is so massive that as an audience member, I felt that she did all of the crying for me, I actually didn’t feel any sympathy when she is eventually is raped Salaudin. I thought maybe I had just become jaded, but Wanda felt the same. I decided that this was a Bollywood-style choice, and maybe would make more sense to an Indo-Canadian audience, a part of which I am not.
Twenty-five minutes of screaming aside, this is a good story. Rehka becomes determined to make money, Jamuna becomes determined to bring Rehka down, Salaudin begins to have strong feelings for Rehka, and Birbal deals with the death of his wife from what we presume must be AIDS and his own declining health. We learn more of Jamuna’s past dealing with the true hardships that her life has presented with some powerful monologues, expertly delivered by Roy. The second half of the show has many of these monologues and although powerful, pacing begins to become an issue. Wanda found Salaudin’s changes of heart to be quick and less than believable, although admittedly important to move the plot forward.
I should note as well, that the production uses some strong incense, but there is no warning about this. This is a big thing. Wanda is hugely allergic to scents and it sent her into a sneezing fit. If this had been written, she might have not come, as scents can wreck the experience of those sitting around her while she coughs and sneezes.
Although this play didn’t quite rock the way I have to admit I really wanted it to as I have heard amazing things from those who have seen Roy, I want to give kudos to the actors here. I really found both men to bring vulnerability to their roles, which isn’t easy to do, and Roy must be commended for her stage-commanding performance of Jamuna. I did enjoy Pamela Singh’s Rehka so much more in the second act, especially as she begun to find her own voice.
Although I am curious about what’s going on in the other eight brothels, the performances in that big old ninth one are definitely worth checking out.
Runs until March 27th
Tickets from $15.00 – $40.00
Box Office can be reached at 416 504 9971 or at
Anusree Roy and Pamela Sinha in the world premiere of Anusree Roy’s Brothel #9 , playing February 26 – March 27, 2011 at Factory Theatre as part of its 2010/11 season.
Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh.