When playwright Madhuri Shekar, a recent alumna of USC's graduate playwriting program, decided to write about Indian marriages, she wanted to avoid the usual storylines dwelling on arranged courtships, disapproving parents, and taboo divorces.
Instead, Shekar decided to focus on a gay Indian-American couple seeking a Hindu wedding. The result, A Nice Indian Boy, premiered on February 26 at East West Players in Little Tokyo, and it comes as India and the United States move in different directions on gay rights. Gay marriage has gained increasing acceptance in the U.S. but in India, the country's highest court reinstated a ban on sodomy in December.
"It talks about marriage in a very unique time and place and through the perspective of a character who wants to be a part of a tradition that may not necessarily have a place for him," says Shekar. Born in California but raised in Chennai, Shekar, 27, won the prestigious Alliance/Kendeda Graduate Playwriting Competition.
A Nice Indian Boy centers on Naveen, a gay Indian American man who falls in love with Keshav, a white man who is a devout Hindu. As Naveen presses his parents—who were united via an arranged marriage—to grant their approval for the wedding, his sister is going through a divorce.
"It's one step further than a coming out play," said Snehal Desai, the play's director and an openly gay Indian-American. "That's something that very much drew me in. The parents embraced the coming out already, so we're going to the next level of conversation about the issue."
Threaded through the play is an exploration of Hinduism. The story opens at a temple honoring the god Ganesha, where Naveen and Keshav meet. Later, the men get tattoos of Ganesha, who has both masculine and feminine qualities and is known as the remover of obstacles. Playwright Shekar describes the elephant-headed deity as her muse.
“In Hinduism, there are all of these stories that validate and sometimes even celebrate queer natures, queer love stories, and the fluidity of sexuality,” she says. “It’s important for us to tell those stories that are open and inclusive.”
Director Desai credits Hinduism's tenets for helping him avoid any tendency toward judgment or moralizing.
“Hinduism is a kind of individualistic religion. When you go to temple, you don't go every Sunday. It's not dogmatic,” he says.
The Indian-American storyline and cast of South Asian actors makes the play a rarity. There are approximately 110,000 South Asians, a group that includes Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis, in Los Angeles County. Growing at a rate of 122 percent in the last decade, it's the fastest increasing population in the county. "South Asians are one of the largest populations in Southern California," Desai says, " but in terms of theater, it's severely underserved."
Some aspects of the play—allusions to Bollywood hits, clips of Indian music, untranslated outbursts in Hindi—are unique to South Asian culture. But the play’s fundamental conflict has a broader appeal. “Everyone wants everyone to be happy, but in trying to do that, we all become unhappy,” Desai says. “That's universal.”
‘A Nice Indian Boy’ runs from through March 23 at the Union Center for the Arts’ David Henry Hwang Theater.