Playwright Anu Yadav’s first commissioned piece The Princess and the Pauper–A Bollywood Tale, debuts this February at Imagination Stage. This play is the perfect platform to introduce children to the world’s more serious issues, using lively song-and-dance numbers and a thrilling plot as a medium. While there’s no shame in experiencing the entertainment at face value, The Princess and the Pauper–A Bollywood Tale also touches on some poignant social topics, a theme that we delve a bit deeper into with this interview.
Julia Exline: Congratulations on your first commissioned piece! What sold you on this particular project?
Anu Yadav: Most of my work tries to address themes of structural poverty — how communities navigate and struggle with it, so it’s a great opportunity to write a children’s play that provokes conversations about wealth inequality. I loved the idea of being able to do that with music, choreography, and celebration. It was my first time as a lyricist collaborating with a composer, which was also exciting.
This project was inspired by the classic The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain. Why was this story chosen? Which themes have remained the same, and which have changed?
Imagination Stage Artistic Director Janet Stanford actually approached me with the idea to adapt the Mark Twain story. She knew that addressing social issues through my artwork is something I’m passionate about, and the original story is a searing critique of class and wealth inequality. What changed a lot is the environment. It is loosely inspired by the time period of the 13th Century Delhi Sultanate, and there’s song and dance with a ‘Bollywood’ kind of flair. I was excited to work with composer Ashwin Subramanian and choreographer Tehreema Mitha, both of whom are tremendous artists. To be able to work with other South Asian artists is a rare opportunity and a gift. I also added references to Sufism, and in particular to the poetry of female Sufi saint Rabia al Basri.
Tell us about the challenges you had in the writing process for this piece?
This is the first time I’ve written for an ensemble versus writing a solo show for myself as the actor. It’s a very different process and I’ve learned a ton! I had the benefit of working with Janet and Kate, both of whom not only know their audiences but also how to structure plays really well. It was really informative to collaborate so closely with actors, and have a whole team of people invested in the success of this play as an ensemble production.
What western culture stereotypes of South Asians (and by extension, South Asian Americans) are you hoping to smash with this play? What do you hope the audience leaves with?
I hope the audience leaves singing songs from the play! I’d love for them to carry with them a reminder of connection to their own community, where they feel most at home. And if the play sparks conversations about wealth inequality, all the better! How does wealth inequality impact them and the people they love? What would they want to change about it? If we all got together, could we completely eliminate poverty? I feel that my life work is about wrestling with these questions in all sorts of ways.
This story isn’t about South Asian Americans, but it is set in an ancient kingdom within South Asia. I think many of us in the United States, particularly those born and/or raised here, often romanticize other parts of the world and different cultures without even realizing it. It’s important to remember we all live and breathe culture — no matter our color or creed. We all have culture and all come from heritages that make up who we are. What appears ‘normal’ to one, can seem ‘foreign’ to another. This story is not only about a fictional kingdom in another historical period, but also a commentary on our political world today here in the United States.