Beyond 'culture in a silo'

EnActe Arts showcases South Asian talent and stories

For Vinita Belani, theater is a labor of love. The Los Altos resident is a computer scientist by training, with an MBA and 20-year career working with tech companies.

"But I've been acting since the age of 5," she said. "I directed my first play when I was 18."

Belani grew up in Kolkata, India, where "it was very easy to be part of the theater world; there was always something going on," she said. Three years ago, frustrated by what she saw as a lack of local opportunities and inspired by what she knew was a wealth of talent, she quit the corporate world and founded EnActe Arts, with its motto of "South Asian theater with universal appeal." Its latest production, "A Nice Indian Boy," will be performed at Cubberley Community Center in Palo Alto on Jan. 22 and 23.

"We have a very rich tradition of theater back home, a tradition that goes back almost 4,000 years, older than Greek theater," Belani said. "People in the West don't know very much about it. All of our religious and Vedic texts were oral, from a time from when the written word was not in existence. When you pass stories down orally, there's always an element of theater."

Her goal with EnActe Arts is "to do theater that is rooted in South Asian culture in some way but to make it appealing to mainstream audiences," she said. South Asia refers to the region including India, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma, Tibet, Pakistan, Maldives and Sri Lanka. There are South Asian theater companies in many major U.S. cities, but "their model is mostly 'of Indians by Indians for Indians,'" Belani said, calling it "culture in a silo." EnActe, instead, seeks to shine a light on the culture and be open to cross-cultural dialogue and collaborations.

Besides entertaining audiences, EnActe also aims to increase opportunities for writers, directors and actors of South Asian backgrounds.

"There's some representation in theater and film in the U.S. but not a lot -- definitely not enough to be reflective of the population or the kind of talent represented in the community," Belani said.

Many EnActe cast members have studied theater at local colleges. About half identify as South Asian while the rest are of various ethnic backgrounds, she said, and some have gone on to film roles and bigger theater opportunities.

"A Nice Indian Boy" was penned by the young San Jose-born playwright Madhuri Shekar.

"She's writing about life as she sees it here in Silicon Valley, growing up Indian and American," Belani said.

The play, a comedy, is the story of a gay Indian-American man who wants to marry his boyfriend, whom he met at a Hindu temple. His traditional parents are dismayed enough to learn about his sexuality but are dealt another blow when they realize his fiance, while Hindu and bearing an Indian name, is actually Caucasian, having been adopted by Indian parents. (In a later twist, they end up feeling he is "more Indian" than their own son.) Meanwhile, their daughter, unsatisfied in her marriage, is annoyed that her brother is permitted to marry for love while she was expected to adhere to tradition.

"This particular play is a very lighthearted take on what is a very sensitive issue in the South Asian community," Belani said. "A lot of the Bay Area LGBTQ organizations are excited. They are helping us spread the word," she said.

The show, with its cast of five, is directed by Ranjita Chakravarty, who's been acting for several decades and made her directorial debut with EnActe last year. Chakravarty, who originally hails from New Delhi and works as an auditor at Stanford University, said that despite her considerable acting experience, she had long shied away from directing until given the opportunity by EnActe. The first show she directed -- a complicated blend of story, dance, and music -- was presented in both English and Bengali.

"Some people thought it would not work, but in the end the purists came on board," Chakravarty said.

"That's something EnActe does very well: We offend purists all the time," Belani said, laughing.

For "A Nice Indian Boy," Chakravarty said she's striving to present the potentially controversial topic with "dignity, honesty and humor," steering clear of slapstick caricature while bringing attention to a still-stigmatized issue.

"It might make people a bit uncomfortable. I'm hoping it ruffles a few feathers," she said.

EnActe produces two professional shows annually, plus a few helmed by amateur directors from the community (as with "A Nice Indian Boy"). Funding comes from grants, corporate donations and contributions from enthusiastic individuals.

EnActe's next major show will be "The Twentieth Wife" about Noor Jahan, the only Mughal empress to ever rule India. That production will be a one-woman Kathak dance performance, with live music, storytellers and poetry.

"It's about a woman who should be much better known in history than she actually is," Belani said.

In addition, sets of stand-up comedy are planned for February and April, and there's a talk coming up on an Indian theater form called folk opera. The next season will open in August with an ambitious production called "Conference of the Birds," based on a 12th-century book by a Persian poet.

"It's an allegory which explains the philosophy of Sufism. We want to showcase the positive influences of Islam on the world," Belani said. Ten different dance groups will come together to present the multiethnic dance-theater piece, each representing a different cultural tradition.

Belani said she's especially excited for EnActe to implement its Women EnAct For Themselves (WEFT) program, for women to use theater as a form of communication and self-expression. That group's next project will be a partnership with an organization called The Partition Archives, which is documenting accounts of the 1947 partition between India and Pakistan. WEFT participants will take firsthand stories from women who experienced the partition -- a harrowing time when many lives were lost and families torn apart -- and turn them into theater pieces.

Through the India Community Center, EnActe offers its Young EnActeurs Program (YEP) for children, with classes for teens planned for 2017. Children in the program have performed in a diverse range of venues, such as in museums and at theater festivals. And, again in partnership with the India Community Center, EnActe also works with senior citizens.

"We're encouraging them to bring to life folktales from the South Asian subcontinent and to tell them to children," Belani said. "They all have stories to tell."

What: "A Nice Indian Boy," presented by EnActe Arts

Where: Cubberley Community Center, 4000 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

When: Jan. 22 at 8 p.m.; Jan. 23 at 2 and 6 p.m.

Cost: $20-$100

Info: Go to enacte.org

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