Play offers the milk of cultural identity

Jivesh Parasram. Photo: Graham Isador

In his one-man show, Take d Milk, Nah?, opening shortly at the NAC, Jivesh Parasram takes on the thorny matter of cultural identity. As an Indo-Caribbean-Hindu-Canadian, Parasram knows a thing or two about cultural identity and distrusts both it and plays that celebrate it.

Thing is, his play – which dips into colonialism, the late 19th/early 20th century British indenture of Indians to work on Caribbean sugar plantations, his own experience of racism in his hometown of Dartmouth, NS, and the birth of a calf in Trinidad – is a kind of identity play.

ARTSFILE spoke with Parasram about his show. The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q. Let’s start with identity plays. How do you define them?

A. It’s often a structure in which the protagonist encounters a conflict within themselves and then they go on a journey, they find their identity, everyone feels good about them having found their identity, and maybe they call the family. And that’s where it ends.

I have more of a problem with the convention of the marginalized person identity play in Canadian theatre, that structure of ‘Something’s wrong with me. Oh, I’ll go find something. Oh, I’m better now!’ It’s not that satisfying to me anymore.

As much as (my play) is an anti-identity play in some ways, it’s still an identity play. It’s dealing with the history of colonization and Indian indentureship.  It is tongue in cheek when I’m making fun of identity plays because I think a lot of people are doing some legitimate healing through them, but the criticism I still feel is the way that it’s wrapped up at the end, having found that identity — we’re all a little bit too f***** up for that in reality.

Q. Is there anything positive to be said about identity plays?

A. From my read on Canadian theatrical history, I think they were huge for a long time and still are for good reason. When I look at the cis straight-dude person of colour identity play, it’s the least marginal of the marginal (but) it was huge in the ’90s and even in the early 2000s

There are lots of identities that just haven’t had that stage. So they’re still being made, and there’s value in getting that narrative. What is it dramaturgically that makes it different is the question — what makes it exciting or makes it political action and beyond just representation.

Q. If I understand correctly, you’re a practicing Hindu doing a kind of identity play.

A. I’m trying to do this Hindu identity play, but in the teachings of Hinduism the idea of identity is not real. For a Hindu to do an identity play is kind of a contradiction, and that’s really where the play turns.

Q. Can you elaborate on identity not being real and what that says about cultural identity?

A. We have a principle called maya, which basically means illusion. Anything in the physical, tangible world, things that we perceive as real, that would be maya. A separation between myself and you, that is maya. So identity itself, that identification that makes me an individual, that itself is an illusion. What the teaching goes for, if you’re moving toward achieving some type of enlightenment in one of your lives, is to get past that point.

Most of our texts are stories, so identity tends to show up as useful in telling a story but usually when it gets down to it, the protagonist comes to a point in which they are failing to see they are actually part of something else. So identity is that last bit they have to come past to understand a larger picture. 

Some of the gurus I listen to say identity is useful, and you need it if you want to function and exist in the world. If you don’t have identity, you enter into this very advanced, yogi state where you’re virtually no longer participating in the world. If you want to exist day to day, identity is key.

Q. So, with all that in mind, why exactly do identity plays distress you?

A. My real objection is they speak with a false authority. The good side of that is they act as a beacon for people to say, ‘That speaks to my experience.’ The larger political question, having developed this with Pandemic Theatre, which is more political, is this fear and danger of identity being so linked with how we build nationalism. I look at what’s going on in India: The citizenship bill they’ve passed (the Citizenship [Amendment] Act, 2019, which excludes Muslims from seeking citizenship under certain conditions), and it’s very discouraging. I see identity can lead to these extremes.

Q. One last question. Cows are important in your play. Why?

A. They’ve been such a major part of our survival in the West Indies, or at least for Hindus trying to find a way out of indentureship. They’re like family members, they live in the backyard; I remember being at my uncle’s and the cow would stick their head in the window to hang out with the family. With indenture, they were the ultimate thing that could help you: They were a beast of burden, milk was huge as a form of sustenance, our houses were made of cow dung. So they gave us this way of being a bit more self-reliant.

Take d Milk, Nah? is in the Azrieli Studio Jan. 14-25 (previews Jan. 14&15; opening night, Jan. 16). For tickets and more information: NAC box office, Ticketmaster outlets, 1-888-991-2787,

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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.