Two one-woman shows, both reflecting experiences and connections deeply personal for the author performers, are about to open. "Curry Tales," opening Thursday, March 28, at Crossroads Theater in New Brunswick, gives a positive take on the immigrant experience of its South Asian author. And the second, "A Sense of Wonder," opening Friday, March 20, at Passage Theater in Trenton, reaches into the author’s love of nature and her commitment to environmental advocacy.
Written and performed by Rani Moorthy, "Curry Tales" penetrates the experience of the Indian diaspora through the curry created and shared by characters who include a Delhi socialite, a Trinidadian Tamil, a slum dweller, a British Asian, an Indian woman brought up in Mao’s China, and Anapurna, the goddess of food.
In the play’s American premiere at Crossroads, Moorthy will allow these feisty, funny characters to express themselves as strong women rather than as victims. "I play six different characters each of whom allow us into their private thoughts," writes Moorthy in an E-mail interview from London. "They each use food as a way of expressing themselves. For women who are oppressed, their cooking sometimes becomes a form of self-expression, their only tool of power, the only way they can exert some control over their lives."
Moorthy was born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to parents who were Sri Lankan Tamil immigrants and teachers. Following the bloody Malaysian race riots of 1969 her family attempted to move to Singapore, but had to live for awhile across the border, which Moorthy crossed daily to go to school. She graduated from the University of Singapore with a degree in linguistics in 1985.
From as early as Moorthy can remember she was always aware of two forces in her life – the diversity of living in a multiracial, multilingual society and her own minority status as a Sri Lankan Tamil as well as a member of the Indian Diaspora. In a small way she was even a minority in her own family – both the men and the women were great cooks but she was labelled as the "clever" one who preferred to read and did not cook.
Moorthy was involved in theater in South East Asia in the mid-1980s as an actress, writer, and director. She co-wrote and starred in Singapore’s first English-language feature film, "Medium Rare."
When she came to live in the United Kingdom in 1996 she couldn’t find work and couldn’t write. During those lean months she poured her creative energies into cooking, and in particular, into making curry. "It was part of my DNA," she writes, "and I saw that cooking is much like writing – a lonely process – and the writer’s relationship with the page parallels the cook’s relationship with the pot." A writer shares a story as a cook shares food, and both writers and cooks experience joy as people respond to their creations. "I realized I had stumbled upon a multi-layered metaphor that was artistically viable and fulfilling."
Kaiulani Lee’s one-woman show, "A Sense of Wonder," also draws on a deep personal connection, only for Lee it’s nature, not cooking. Her play chronicles the story of Rachel Carson, the well-known environmentalist and author of "Silent Spring," who fights to defend the natural world she loves against the chemical industry, the government, and the press – even as she herself is dying of cancer.
Lee is reluctant to speak about herself – she would much rather talk about Carson – but she admits that she was always in nature as a child. Her father worked for Scott Paper Company, but no matter where they lived, they had a big piece of land, and summers were spent at her mother’s family’s place in Maine.
"I had enormous space around me," says Lee. "I was not in an egg carton one on top of the other; I had a place to escape to that was a vista and could always find a space that was bigger than my little psyche."
Lee found nature a great solace. "Some people escape to a book, or today to television or a computer game," she says. "I went outside, and I found something in the refrains and constant beauty. You could be in the saddest, angriest mood, and hear a bird song or wind in the trees or see trout in a brook – something to take you out of yourself, bigger than a human being."
When she set out to create something in defense of the natural world, her husband suggested she read "Silent Spring," and that was the first step in creating this one-woman show, which Lee has been performing for 16 years, including at the Smithsonian Institute, the Albert Schweitzer Conference at the United Nations, the Sierra Club’s Centennial, and the 2005 World Expo in Japan. Lee has also discussed the piece on Bill Moyers Journal. The performances in Trenton are part of Passage Theatre’s Solo Flights Festival, which runs through Sunday, March 30.
Lee remembers always being familiar with Carson, who summered just up the Maine coast from her family. Carson’s name would come up as planes sweeped over, spraying insecticides to get rid of the mosquitoes. Then as a teen she fell in love with Carson’s books about the sea.
Lee was in college as a political science major when she followed a boyfriend to New York and got involved with the New York Street Theater, which performed in prisons, migrant camps, and union halls. "They were places I never saw as a middle-class white girl, and it was an amazing education," she says. Although she returned to college in the fall, the group offered her a full-time position, and she left school, traveling with the company for five years. She didn’t finish college until years later at American University, after she had kids.
The theater trained her as an actress, giving her the chance to work with the greats – Lee Strasbourg, Sandy Meisner, and Uta Hagen – and once she left the New York Street Theater, she found herself cast into off-Broadway, then Broadway plays.
Lee came to Rachel Carson when she was starting to realize that the nature she so loved but had taken for granted was at risk, and she wanted to do something about it. This was about 20 years ago when her husband, an environmental attorney, started to bring home stories of global warming, cloning, genetic engineering, and climate change – issues that hadn’t yet made it to the front pages of the newspaper.
She had always been environmentally conscious – composting and recycling – but had never reckoned with the global issues at stake, and she was afraid. "It terrified me that we could alter the natural world without being cognizant of what we were doing and without any way of retrieving it," she says.
"Our technology is moving so quickly, and it is not natural, and we as citizens are not making decisions – businesses are," says Lee. She believes that as citizens we have to be informed and examine the issue morally, legally, and psychologically.
"Silent Spring," published in 1962 and researched for four years previous, is about chemicals and pesticides. "It is not my issue, and it was not her issue," says Lee, "but it was one way we had of potentially altering the world around us and slowly destroying it. She took it on because there was no one else."
Lee’s work on this play helped her find her own voice. "I was always a good girl and did what was expected," she says. "This was finding something deep in my core that I passionately believed in."
Over the course of performing the play for 16 years, her relationship to the natural world has also changed. "I’m not just a lover of the natural world but an advocate for it, because I’m absolutely passionate about what our responsibilities are. We are part of it, not caretakers, not sovereign over it; it has made me understand the interrelatedness of all life."
Whereas Lee’s political intentions are very direct, Moorthy’s are also there, but moreunderstated. "I think all good writing is political in the best sense in that there is a clear point of view, it engages in a way that is involving and whole; you want the audience to be as passionate as you, to be on that journey with you," she writes. "But it is not a polemic and my commitment is always to the narrative and to the characters who are gleaned from my experiences."
Having spent so many years writing the play, reading Carson’s journals and letters, interviewing her family, friends, and coworkers, Lee explains that something happens when "A Sense of Wonder" starts: "(Rachel) comes in and takes over. The difficult part is trying to be true to her and so many aspects of her." And the audience does play a role. "Every night the performance is different," says Lee, "depending on what the audience brings to it and what I bring to it."
For Moorthy, audience is central to the theatrical experience. "In a one woman show, the audience is the other character. The play, my performance, is enhanced and influenced by the vibe from the audience," writes Moorthy. She gauges the audience’s responses and emotions and invites people to join her, literally, in the theatrical experience. "It is bold and sometimes uncomfortable for both performer and audience," she writes, "but the risk that I take is rewarded by the audience truly having an emotional stake in the play and because they can participate on all levels: they talk to me, help me prepare the food, and the script is kept fluid and fresh."
Moorthy continues, "I like the audience to experience what I like to experience when I go and watch a play; I want to be surprised, challenged, and uplifted. I want to learn something about the human condition using all my senses but not feel like I’m having something rammed down my throat. . . and I don’t mean curry!"
"A Sense of Wonder," Thursday, March 20, and Thursday and Friday, March 27 and 28, 8 p.m., Passage Theater, Mill Hill Playhouse, 205 East Front Street, Trenton. $40. 609-392-0766. Visit www.kaiulanilee.com.
"Curry Tales," Thursday, March 27, through Sunday, April 6, Crossroads Theater, 7 Livingston Avenue in New Brunswick. $40 to $45. www.CrossroadsNB.com