As a South Asian actor and a writer, I am always excited to see plays about South Asians, and when it is a play that won the 2018 Horton Foote Prize for Promising New American Play, the anticipation is even greater. India Pale Ale, as the title suggests, revolves around an Indian family that believes that their ancestor was a pirate who sailed on the ship that transported IPA between the UK and India. It touches the issues of hate crime and terrorism in an entertaining and fun manner.
It is a story of a second generation Punjabi-Sikh family based in Wisconsin, getting ready to celebrate their son, Iggy (Sathya Sridharan) and Lovi's (Lipica Shah) engagement ceremony, when their daughter Boz (Shazi Raja) announces that she plans to leave home to open a bar. The story then takes a turn, as a hate crime happens during a service, and the community is left to deal with the aftermath of the shooting and the future of their sacred service hall.
As I walked into the theater at New York City Center, I was quiet surprised to see a bare stage with a fancy wall, which I later realized was made of beer bottles- a great choice for the backdrop. The set was minimal but effective. The music by Elisheba Ittoop and choreography by Will Davis were lively and fun. The writing is humorous, witty and reflects the happy-go-lucky attitude of Punjabis. All the actors were strong in inhabiting their characters with a lot of humor.
However, I would have loved to see the characters digging deeper into the issues they were dealing with. For example, when Lovi says to Iggy, "We are all miserable Iggy, you're not special" referring to the mass shooting and the loss they experienced as a community. And Iggy says, "That's the meanest thing you could ever say! I'm super special"...and of-course it gets a laugh. I laughed too. But this was an important moment to connect the characters plight to the audience, which was lost.
At the end, Deepa (Purva Bedi), gives a speech about being American and being one as people and leaves the audience with an important question about the much needed change. I think a strong message like this should be imbued within the play and then perhaps the speech at the end wouldn't be necessary. After the speech the cast members distributed food packets to the audience in the spirit of Langar, which was very moving.
It just so happened that the next day I had a lovely conversation with a Sikh Aunty from Delhi about Sikhism, their magnanimity, their love for service through tradition of Langar, and their suffering as a community. It left me thinking it would have been lovely to see some of what she expressed in the play, and that is when I realized that India Pale Ale, as entertaining as it was, was missing the heart of the Sikh community.
India Pale Ale is an ambitious play with a lot of potential, albeit not as impactful, in its current version. There is too much going on in the play, the struggle of a generation trying to find its own footing, mythical and magical journey of the pirate ancestor, breaking of the fourth wall to engage with the audience, and then the most important of all, the hate-crime. With so much going on, the issue of hate crime does not get the attention it demands and the play fails to impact the audience at a visceral level.
India Pale Ale is an entertaining and important play, and a step in the right direction but needs a little more work to have a greater impact.
(Photo by Joan Marcus)
What the popular press says...
"India Pale Ale, directed with studious effervescence by Will Davis, is a cheerfully instructive work, created with the aim of bridging one of the many cultural gaps in these dangerously divided United States."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"By the time the new play by Jaclyn Backhaus reaches its conclusion, you'll know that the divide between cultures can be bridged by peace, love and tolerance. That harmony can be achieved by something as simple as communally eating foods you've never tried before. And that our future can only be assured by growing and learning from one another. You'll know all this because India Pale Ale takes great pains to tell you so in very explicit fashion."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter
External links to full reviews from popular press...