[Editor’s Note : Review perviously published here]
Aditi Brennan Kapil’s new play Brahman/i, currently playing at Chicago’s About Face Theatre, has all the makings of a play that I should love. It hits so many of my major interests: queerness, gender issues, colonialism, Asian identity, and mythology. Yet Kapil’s seemingly blithe disregard for the lived experiences of the people and community from which she mines the fodder for her play strikes me as discordant with the play’s message of anti-appropriation and authenticity.
The play is set as the eponymous Brahman/i’s, an intersex Indian American comedian, autobiographical stand-up routine.** We learn that at birth Brahman is born with ambiguous genitalia, or “I have a penis and a vagina,” as they frequently and dryly remind us. Up to the age of 14, Brahman is raised as and lives as a boy, perfectly comfortable in his maleness and heterosexuality. Though he longs to be accepted as a “cool kid,” he seems to be very at home being a boy and lusting after girls.
Fawz.jpgSuddenly, when he begins to develop breasts, he is made a laughingstock at school and is thrown into a maelstrom of confusion. This discovery prompts his parents and doctor to reveal that he was born intersex and is told to now choose a gender to live by: boy or girl.
This predictably causes some amount of angst and confusion for Brahman/i, but his eccentric aunt provides him with a Hindu context to understand his condition: Hinduism’s rather explicit history of sexuality in faith; and The hijra (a non-binary gender identity in many South Asian cultures, which was recently recognized by high courts in Bangladesh and India as an official third gender). Now known as Brahman/i, our protagonist decides that if they have to choose a gender, then they might as well try both. We see Brahman/i don female garb with earrings, lipstick, and a scarf around the waist and immediately subscribing to life as a heterosexual woman — swooning over the jocks she had only weeks ago been “bro”-ing with.
The sudden discarding of swagger for sass and male heterosexuality for female heterosexuality is disorienting, and it betrays Kapil’s profound misunderstanding of intersex and trans* experiences.
Brahman/i’s lackadaisical wandering between hyper-masculine and hyper-feminine genders suggests that Kapil is trying to emphasize gender’s inconsequential role in our shared humanity — that men and women are both equally human. “Today, I’m a boy! Tomorrow, I’m a girl! It doesn’t matter, I’m still me! Yaaaay!!”
While gender fluidity is definitely something we want more people to accept, Kapil’s version of it isn’t fluid. Being able to hop from male to female isn’t moving along a spectrum, it only reinforces that there are only two options. Additionally, this gleeful gender traipsing only further trivializes the real lived experience of intersex and trans* folks in their journey of gender discovery.
Kapil’s Brahman/i is extremely fortunate in having avoided many of the traumatic experiences often inflicted on intersex people in this country. Most intersex children born with ambiguous genitalia are operated on at birth, often without the full informed consent of the parents. Even when parental consent is given, doctors frequently insist that surgical intervention is imperative to the child’s well-being, when in fact there might not be any medical need for intervention other than a cosmetic one.
Additionally, the corrective assignment of gender at birth for intersex children is often made in order to ensure that the child can live a “normal” heterosexual life. A baby with a vagina, small testes, and a micropenis will usually have their testes and penis amputated so they can be a “normal” girl, disregarding the fact that this operation completely removes millions of nerve endings and can render the patient unable to engage in sexual pleasure later in life. In fact, it is much easier to cut off a penis or enlarged clitoris than it is to reconstruct a vagina.
Intersex children who have their gender surgically assigned at birth often report years of gender dysphoria leading to confusion, depression, and even suicide. The struggle for intersex people to reclaim their own gender from the medical-industrial complex is one that has been fought for decades.
The way in which Kapil uses the hijra metaphor I also found problematic. While I am glad for increased awareness about third-gender identities in non-Western cultures, Kapil’s utilization of the hijra feels downright colonial.
brahmani.jpgBeing hijra in South Asia — with its centuries-long history of institutionalized discrimination against hijra communities — is no walk in the park. Hijras are demoted to a special caste outside of the “normal” caste system. They are also frequently barred from gainful employment, housing, and are frequently the targets of violence.
When Kapil extols the mythic hijras for their loyalty to Lord Shiva and their revered place as being able to bless (and curse) important civic and cultural ceremonies, like marriages; she conveniently avoids mention that this service is frequently their only legitimate means of employment. The abject economic destitution experienced by hijra communities often forces hijras to insert themselves into wedding ceremonies, even when they are not invited to participate (and frequently they are not). Left with little recourse, hijras also often turn to sex work and begging in order to feed and house themselves.
Given all this historical context, Kapil’s “One-Hijra Stand-up Comedy Show,” as the play is billed, feels more like appropriation than celebration.
Kapil’s play blithely sidesteps all of this messiness in favor of the playwright’s interest in interrogating gender norms in our culture. She tries to suggest through her play that gender doesn’t matter. However, for many people their gender does matter… a lot.
Gender is something many people fight tooth and nail for, even in the face of societal condemnation and oppression. It is a deep and innate part of their being. But that authentic gender identity does not have to fit squarely into two camps; it can also move between them over time, and the expression of that gender can be playful and experimental.
When we say that gender is a social construct, it is not to say that gender does not exist– it is rather to say that the gender binary does not exist. And all humans, whether cisgender, trans* or intersex, exist in a kaleidoscope of gender fractals.
All of this said, there is plenty to like in the production. Kapil’s deft critique of colonialism (both internal and external) was very enlightening and funny, and usually the strongest parts of the play. The two-person cast was extremely talented: Fawzia Mirza’s electric charisma as Brahman/i was extremely effective and she handled the extremely daunting task of being funny for a whole-90 minutes very well; Damian Conrad who plays Brahman/i’s back-up bassist was disarming in his restraint and understated acting. I also congratulate Andrew Volkoff’s kinetic and fluid staging which thankfully avoided the static-ness of a typical stand-up show.
But while I am thrilled to see a production like this that leads to collaboration between the LGBT and South Asian theatre companies like About Face Theatre and Silk Road Rising, and it’s great that queer issues get to be addressed alongside South Asian issues, Brahman/i feels like a false start. In fact, the production felt like “ally” theatre in the worst way: a well-intentioned inadvertent slap in the face.
**UPDATE: The wording of this sentence was slightly altered to provide clarity about the identities at play. For clarification, Aditi Brennan Kapil is a cis South Asian playwright, and Brahman/i is a fictional character. The play is not Kapil’s autobiographical story.