You're bound to be favourably disposed toward a play in which the actors greet audience members individually as they arrive and serve them warm, fresh samosas.
As it turns out, though, the samosas aren't a tasty bribe but a symbol of what is to come. The actors are Ravi Jain and his mother Asha and their play, A Brimful of Asha, proves to be a warm, fresh piece of theatre.
This unusual show, premiering in Tarragon Theatre's Extra Space, is less a scripted work – although it was developed through Tarragon's Playwrights Unit – and more of a semi-improvised dual memoir. In it, Ravi and Asha share their recollections of a trip to India in 2007, when Ravi's parents attempted to set him up with a wife.
When theatre artist Ravi gets an offer to teach a workshop in Calcutta, he leaps at the chance to spend some time in his family's homeland. His parents in Etobicoke, meanwhile, seize the opportunity to try to marry off their footloose 27-year-old son. Rather deviously, Asha and Ramesh Jain plan their annual visit to New Delhi to coincide with his trip. Before he knows it, the resistant Ravi is being artfully manipulated into meeting prospective brides.
It was an emotionally fraught time for all concerned, but in retrospect it plays out as wry comedy. Ravi is manoeuvred into awkward dates with equally reluctant young women, including one dinner in which the families on both sides wait hopefully at a nearby table. His businessman father Ramesh – delightfully impersonated by Ravi – slyly integrates matchmaking into his son's travel itinerary.
While the loquacious Ravi presents his side of the story – the modern perspective of a young man born and raised in Canada – Asha quietly but tartly inserts her traditional point of view. She not only explains the Hindu beliefs that support arranged marriages, but reveals the tremendous community pressure felt by Indian parents to find a mate for their offspring. She also shares her own experience as a young Indian woman compelled to marry and set aside her dreams.
Yet, despite that early disappointment, Asha holds to the belief that marriage comes first, love later. "It's something that grows," she says, adding touchingly that she loves her husband of 38 years "more every day."
These intimate observations are confided as if over tea in the family kitchen. The Extra Space has been configured so that the stage becomes a cozy corner, Julie Fox's set consisting of a simple table and chairs on an oriental rug. Ravi is dressed casually in jeans and sneakers, Asha more formally in a sari. Instead of taking out family albums, they show us photos on a pair of overhead screens. The imagery, designed by Beth Kates, also includes maps of India, video clips and, to illustrate the South Asian penchant for using biodata to identify matrimonial candidates, the résumé of Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai – back when she was single.
As a mother-and-son act, the Jains prove highly amusing. The two interrupt, needle and contradict each other. Ravi, a skilled actor whose past credits include the Dora Award-winning satire Spent, handles the bulk of the narrative. The show's director, he continues to direct during the performance, occasionally reining in his mother when she skips ahead in the story. But Asha, while an acting novice, maintains a maternal upper hand. When Ravi forgets himself and sits on the kitchen table, she quickly reprimands him.
The title A Brimful of Asha, taken from the 1997 song by U.K. indie band Cornershop, has a double meaning. It suggests Ravi's being fed up with his mother's nagging, but at the same time, as the play's program explains, the name Asha is Hindi for "hope." The irony is that we don't really get a brimful of Asha Jain, just enough of a taste to want to hear more from her. The perspective of first-generation Canadian immigrants, with one foot still in the old country, is something we need to better understand.
In that regard, it's a happy coincidence that the Jains' play is running at the same time as Soulpepper Theatre's hit production of Kim's Convenience. Ins Choi's play presents a similar generational conflict within a Korean-Canadian family, and both works reflect a laudable desire by the young to give a voice to their elders.
A Brimful of Asha
- Written and performed by Asha and Ravi Jain
- Directed by Ravi Jain
- A Why Not Theatre production
- At Tarragon Theatre in Toronto
A Brimful of Asha runs until Feb. 19.