Acha Bacha, a bleak but important new drama about a gay Pakistani-Canadian man coming to terms with a trauma from his past, couldn't arrive on Toronto stages more urgently.
That attention must be paid, as the famous line in Death of a Salesman goes, to brown gay men in this city has becoming devastatingly clear in the wake of the shocking news that a serial killer has allegedly been targeting that community for years.
Bilal Baig, the promising playwright behind Acha Bacha, is undoubtedly a voice that needs to be heard at this moment – and, in a collaboration planned almost clairvoyantly over a year ago, two theatre companies (Theatre Passe Muraille and Buddies in Bad Times) have teamed up to bring his first play to the stage now.
Acha Bacha takes place between dawn and sunset one day during Ramadan, in and around Mississauga and Kitchener, Ont.
Zaya (Qasim Khan) is having early-morning sex with his boyfriend, Salim (Matt Nethersole), when the Pakistani-Canadian man in his late 20s is visited by a vision of a father figure from his past.
Maulana (Omar Alex Khan), whose Islamiyat class Zaya attended as a boy in a basement mosque in Mississauga 20 years earlier, walks right into his living room – and, at first, he seems to be a manifestation of Zaya's religious guilt or semi-closeted shame over being gay.
Zaya learned how to be a good Muslim man from Maulana, receiving gold stars on a cricket bat for prayers learned properly – and he was also close with Maulana's son, Mubeen (Shelly Antony).
Whatever the reason for this strange and confusing vision, Zaya is awoken from it by a call from his sister: Their mother (Ellora Patnaik), known only as Ma here, is in the hospital, having suffered a fall.
Over the course of a day of fasting, Zaya visits Ma in the hospital (and tries to openly genderqueer Salim from visiting her), takes a trip to see Mubeen in Kitchener after learning that he is soon to be married, and has a number of other unsettling flashbacks from his childhood.
The structure of Baig's play is its weakest element. The audience is way ahead of the main character in understanding what happened to him, if not the exact details.
It's also difficult to make hallucinations dramatic in the moment. Zaya's visions constantly surprise him – leading to many scenes where actors have to inhabit the impossible acting space between memory and hallucination, while Qasim Khan has to continually act baffled.
To the Stratford Festival company member's credit, he pulls this off all the way through; under the simple, effective direction of Brendan Healy (recently appointed the new artistic director of performing arts for the city of Brampton), Khan pulls this unwieldly play together into the story of one man's self-discovery – and, indeed, the entire show is elevated by exceptional acting across the board.
Nethersole has a natural charisma as Salim, while Antony, who shined in Little Pretty and The Exceptional last year at Factory Theatre, again show a truly original stage presence – walking his own weird line between sweet and swaggering.
Omar Alex Khan manages to cut a sympathetic figure even though he plays the least likeable character and the only one never to appear in "reality."
There's no hint in Acha Bacha that Zaya will be able to fully live as who he is with his family and in his religious community any time soon – and the play, unpolished as it is in some ways, feels lived in and brave in its uncompromising examination of several different experiences of being gay, Muslim and South Asian.
It's the detailed immersion in a community that I, as a white, downtown-dwelling Torontonian, know almost nothing about that appealed to me as an audience member; for others, the chance to see themselves represented on a Toronto stage at all will be powerful.
Acha Bacha continues to Feb. 18 (passemuraille.ca).