A bond of a lifetime: Into the lives of the Brooklyn Quartet, by The Auroville Theatre Group
For Jill Navarre of The Auroville Theatre Group, there couldn’t have been a better time to choose Brooklyn Quartet as her next directorial project. “At a time when intolerance is in the rise in modern-day society, this story of Rock Wilk mirrors the travails of living in a neighbourhood that is rife with most of the social evils of today, such as racial injustice, discrimination, cruelty and unprovoked violence,” Jill tells us. Rock is based out of The Bronx in New York and originally wrote this play as a solo production, where the writer himself plays the roles of four characters.
Jill, while praising Rock’s acting prowess, informs us that it was Rock’s idea to play four characters in her adaptation, instead of one. “He thought this move might help get the play a wider exposure outside of the US,” she shares. Revealing that she first came across this play on Vimeo, she says, “As a one-man show, I was blown away by his ability to play four characters, complete with subtle changes of voice and body language. And there was also the effort required to learn an entire text of dialogue while acting out four different characters. I also resonated immediately with the story of love, friendship and racial stereotyping.”
In the neighbourhood
Set in Brooklyn between the years 1986 to 2006, Brooklyn Quartet is “about growing up in America, in a society that is increasingly polarised around issues of race, color and money power.” The story follows three primary characters — Eugene ‘Saint’ Owens, Esther Alvarez and Alan ‘Jamaal’ Williams — over a period of 20 years, with their story narrated by Queen, whose real identity is revealed at the end of the play.
“It’s about 20 years of love, friendship, war, jealousy, ambition, frustration, and poetry. The cast of my play has Sainath Saikrishnan as Saint, Rupam Mishra as Queen, Shilpa Sunny as Esther, Saddam Hussain as Jamaal, and Najeeb TP as a club manager,” shares Jill, who adds, “While the choreography has been done by Aurosri Mandal, the lighting has been set up by Sugumar Shanmugam.”
Talking about the relevance of this story, Jill is certain that the time is right for it to be presented to the world outside the US. “I wanted to give a voice to a story which speaks about these issues through 20 years of three friends — one black, one white and one Latino/Jewish — growing up together, trying to keep their friendship alive in spite of misunderstandings, betrayals, jealousy, confusion, and chaos, in spite of what happens in the world around them,” explains Jill, echoing the sentiments of many who face intolerance on a daily basis.
One scene at a time
“We are playing this one fast and loose,” says Jill. “It means that there are quick scene changes, not much set design, and visuals will be with projections and video clips. The audio will be a mix of sound effects and recorded music. The idea is to put the story in the foreground, and what is happening in Brooklyn and in the US in the background. And a lot is happening. We are, of course, drawing attention to the indiscriminate killing of black people, young black men mostly, in the US that serves as the backdrop for the story,” Jill elaborates, adding, “Then the neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant (Bed-Stuy) becomes a safe haven for our three friends, where they feel safe but untested and insecure if they have to venture out of their neighbourhood.”
One of the biggest challenges that Jill faced, we learn, is directing the script with the local street language in mind. “The language is rough — the language of the street and of the neighborhood kind, plus of the people who live in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, New York — and most actors are not used to speaking these words easily. But it also has great moments of tenderness, of poetry, of a lyrical descriptiveness which takes the story to another level, through the character Queen. It is her story where she is the narrator,” says Jill, adding that the music ranges from rap, jazz and pop to soul from Nina Simone’s era.
In the pipeline
Coming up in the near future for The Auroville Theatre Group is another collaboration with American playwright Richard France, whose earlier collaboration with the theatre group was a play about American filmmaker Orson Welles. “The new one is called Barabbas by Richard France. Barabbas is a figure in the Bible who is freed by Pontius Pilate when Jesus is condemned to be crucified. A monoplay in two acts, Barabbas challenges two actors — one has all the text, the other has none,” explains Jill, who adds that they also have coming up an adaptation of Who Sits Behind My Eyes? by Isabel Santa Rita Vas (directed by Franziska Detrez), and A Place Called Home, a collab between Jill and Tamur Tohver (of Fear Walkers fame).
July 5-6. At Indianostrum Theatre, Pondicherry. July 9 and 10 in Ranga Shankara, Bangalore, and July 12 at the Alliance Francaise in Chennai.