Montreal-based playwright Yaël Farber checked her Facebook news feed one December morning in 2012 and read the story that would change her life. A 23-year-old woman who boarded a bus with a male friend after watching Ang Lee's Life of Pi at a mall in New Delhi was gang-raped in a prolonged attack on that bus. The woman, Jyoti Singh Pandey – known by the pseudonym Nirbhaya, Hindi for "fearless" – died two weeks later. Protests swelled on the streets of India.
"Who knows why some stories just have a confluence of different elements that perforate our numbness, but I was moved to my core by what happened to this young woman," says Farber, who is from South Africa but has lived in Canada for a decade. "The brutality was just unthinkable. But it was by far not an anomaly. But for some reason that story just wounded people in a way."
Farber posted her feelings on the social networking site ("my mother, my daughter, myself," she wrote) and heard the next day from a woman in Mumbai. Poorna Jagannathan told Farber something she had told only her husband and a therapist: that she herself was a survivor of sexual violence.
"She said, 'I know that my silence is part of what made what happened last night on that bus possible because of the complicit tapestry of violence that we are all contributing to. And I'm ready to speak and people here are ready to speak and you have to come and help us be a part of that,'" says Farber.
Jagannathan (who appears on HBO's Crime, formerly Criminal Justice) flew Farber (and her then five-year-old daughter) to Mumbai a few weeks later, and became the originating producer on the project. Together they developed Nirbhaya, a work of testimonial theatre that has been described as "one of the most powerful pieces of theatre I've seen" (The Telegraph); "surely one of the most powerful and urgent pieces of human rights theatre ever made" (the Herald Scotland), and a "harrowing documentary drama" and "intensely theatrical experience" (The New York Times). It won the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where it had its world premiere in August, 2013.
Nirbhaya, written and directed by Farber, has its Canadian premiere in Vancouver on Tuesday before a run in Toronto. At its narrative spine is the story of Pandey's horrific attack. Performers in the show – including Jagannathan (who will appear in Toronto but not Vancouver) – also tell their own stories, sharing details of the brutal violence they personally experienced. One of the participants, Toronto-based actor Pamela Sinha (who was not part of the original production) was raped as a young woman in Montreal (also explored in her one-woman show, Crash).
Farber says about two to three dozen people responded to a social media call-out back in 2013 for victims of sexual violence who were willing to tell their stories.
"The whole premise of the work is, break your silence," says Farber. "It's a very courageous act to cast off the implicit shame that's involved with sexual violence. But that's really the crux of the issue; that the shame is … located with the survivor rather than the perpetrator. And this creates a code of silence and thus the status quo around it being an unbreakable and continued wave of non-accountability."
Mies Julie, Farber's adapation of August Strindberg's Miss Julie, premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2012. Nirbhaya premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe the following year – only about six months after the crime occurred. That's an unusually ambitious timeline for developing and presenting a new work – a result of the advice of Mies Julie's London producer.
"Very wisely, he said we have to do it this year while people still care. And there's a great truth to that, because there's a certain amount of time that that aperture opens, and then it closes again. There's a small period of grace when we all become human around a specific item in the news and then we harden up again and we carry on with our lives," says Farber. "This work is really about us trying to light the flames of that righteous outrage … because inevitably that flame goes out."
The response to the production was remarkable. People would sit and sit in the theatre afterward, trying to process the experience. Because of the nature of the Edinburgh Fringe – it's busy – that was problematic. So Farber had the performers stand outside the venue after the show, where audience members would file past – often whispering into a performer's ear.
"Every single day, more than two or three women – or men – would say into their ear, 'I haven't told anybody this, but this is what happened to me and this is the first time I've spoken about it,'" says Farber, who says the stories continue to emerge – sometimes at performances, sometimes online. "People say, 'I understand if I continue with my silence, it is not a passive act. It's an active contribution toward this continuing.'"