Friday, November 18, 2016

Art Imitates Life

I had the privilege of attending two stunning productions in the last three weeks: the musical “Next to Normal”, and a one-woman show written and performed by my friend Nimisha Ladva called “Univited Girl: An Immigrant Story.”  Both struck very topical chords with their subject matter (bipolar disorder in the one story, immigration in the other.) Both shows moved me to tears. Both emphasized to me the immense power of the written and spoken (and sung) word, and the ability of theatre to build bridges of compassion and connection between performers and audiences.

Program for "Next to Normal"

“Next to Normal” was birthed in a workshop as a ten minute piece called “Being Electric,” and over the years grew, and morphed, into a fully-realized two act production. Songs were added, and subtracted—as were scenes and characters. “Next to Normal” in its final incarnation garnered rave reviews, winning Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize. While not based on a specific true story, the journey of Diana and her family is much like the journey of so many of us with the same diagnosis.
Program for "Uninvited Girl"

Similarly, Nimisha’s show began as a much shorter piece, more limited in scope, and eventually became an hour long performance, using five interconnected true stories taken from Nimisha’s life. With no props or costumes, only a single chair, she masterfully created a world on stage, a world where the child of Indian immigrants feels like an outsider, in England and then in America. A world where a hardworking and resourceful family has their work visas arbitrarily cancelled, rendering them “illegals,” subject to deportation. And there’s no denying that we live in a world where such things still happen, all too often.

While the subject matter is largely serious, there are many humorous and touching moments in both shows. Nimisha’s campaign to persuade her parents to let her act in a school play, and her disastrous date with a conceited Indian doctor, are among several hilarious moments. Her portrayals of her mother and father are filled with tenderness. Diana’s manic episodes (at one point she frantically makes a huge amount of sandwiches, using every surface in the kitchen, “trying to get ahead on lunches”) are darkly funny, and her relationships with her husband and daughter are bittersweet. 

The two shows end powerfully and at least somewhat hopefully—one in a courtroom filled with loving and supportive neighbors, the other in a quiet living room after Diana has left. But the questions for the audiences remain: why do people still have to struggle to belong in this country, in this world? Why is mental illness still so stigmatized? I am afraid that we are living in an increasingly polarized society, where anyone who is “other” still faces huge obstacles. But it is in our power to rewrite their stories, to help change the outcomes, and our collective future, for the better. It all begins with understanding—which works of art like “Next to Normal” and “Uninvited Girl” can do much to help us achieve. 

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