Review: ‘Brahman/I’ at The Logan Festival of Solo Performance

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Set in a non-descript stand-up comedy club, the 1st Stage production of Brahman/I has a clever premise: a solo performer reveals some of a human being’s most intimate details.

Aila Peck in Brahman/I. Photo by Dave Burbank.

Brahman/I is a unique play. As penned by playwright Aditi Brennan Kapil, Brahman/I squeezes a great deal of provocative subject matter into its 90 minutes in the guise of a stand-up comedy routine. The script takes on a wide range of hot-button issues as Kapil delves into Indian heritage, immigration to America, the history of British colonialism, mythology, and the challenging experience of puberty in middle school when one is “different” from others.

But, the key issues Kapil explores that are the true underpinning of the entire evening surround gender fluidity when one is born intersex with both male and female genitalia, and how the construct of only binary gender options to live one’s life are unacceptable. How does an individual self-define themselves and then present that image and self to the world?

Directed by M. Bevin O’Gara, the solo performer for the evening is the talented, almost breathless with non-stop energy, Aila Peck. She has a rebellious spirit about her no matter what age she portrays of the title character, B, which is short for Brahman.

Peck is sometimes strident, others times dramatically self-effacing. Over the course of the show, Peck plays about a dozen assorted characters beyond B including a mother, an auntie, medical professionals, as well as assorted male and female middle school and then older, but generally less than loyal, friends.

As B, Peck takes the audience through her life since birth as intersex. As a new baby, she is assigned to be a male. With protective parents and no gym classes or sports, B makes it through life as a prepubescent male until puberty strikes and breasts appear. Now what? Middle school boys become cruel and middle school girls are not certain who and what B has become (each character is portrayed by Peck with aplomb).

B decides to reset from a male identity. B rechristens in presentation as a female doing so on stage with some lipstick and a bolt of long fabric that becomes a sari. Does having a female appearance and identity work for the newly minted B?  Well, that is much of the crux of the production as B learns about (and teaches the audience about) the South Asian third gender known as hijras.  B comes to know about this from her untraditional auntie (one of the dozen characters actor Peck portrays).

Aila Peck in Brahman/I. Photo courtesy of 1st Stage.

But Brahman/I is far from an evening about gender identity and gender fluidity. Some funnier moments arrive when B compares the absolute majesty and power of Mt. Everest to the more puny nature of England’s Stonehenge.

Moments with projected images (set design by Jordan and Christopher Swader with lighting design by Annie Wiegand) brought immediate and total silence to the 1st Stage audience at the performance I attended. What were the projections? They were some of the world’s first pornography in the form of stone sculptures that still exist in Northern India (not unlike some of the positions that Boomers in the audience recalled from their college reading of the Kama Sutra).

And there is this quip about Galileo Galilei that “There are stranger things in heaven and earth,” with B thinking Galileo might tell her “than your genitalia.”

Kapil’s script also includes weighty matters such as Pakistan-India relations, and Kipling’s infamous poem “The White Man’s Burden,” along with a well-researched primer about Hindu Gods and mythology.

But over time, the show began to drag. Some editing would help it hit its marks. Brahman/I stuffed too many different issues into its comic routine. The script would be enhanced with a lesser number of topics to take on beyond gender fluidity and the South Asian immigrant experience. Then again maybe the playwright thought non-South Asian audience needed to understand a culture they might know little of. But, the production ended with its heart on its sleeve with a subtext about being loved.

On stage playing bass guitar riffs between scenes sits Thom Dunn. He has nothing much to say until the end with his words of acceptance of B as she brings down the final black-out.

Brahman/I at 1st Stage as part of the Logan Festival of Solo Performances is an intriguing play about ultimate personal liberation from the straight-jacket of conventional norms. It ends as a love story, a radical, though bumpy tale about self-acceptance, rather than just another comedy routine. And in the end, patrons can learn that beyond two gender options, there are at least a dozen.

Running Time: About 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Brahman/I runs through July 22, 2018, at 1st Stage – 524 Spring Hill Road, in Tysons, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 854-1856, or purchase them online.