Review: Play drinks deep of the milk of human identity

Jivesh Parasram. Photo: Graham Isador

 Feeling excluded from a space you simply assume is yours can be, for a white, middle-class person like me, disorienting. Not quite sure what to make of the situation, the natural reaction is to seek a mental accommodation that renders the new experience if not understandable at least tolerable.

To say more would be a spoiler, but exclusion and inclusion are key to Jivesh Parasram’s solo show Take d Milk, Nah? Created by Parasram, Tom Arthur Davis and Graham Isador, the identity play that’s not an identity play but actually sort of is an identity play opened Thursday at the NAC.

Parasram, a self-described Indo-Caribbean-Hindu-Canadian who grew up in Dartmouth, NS, plays with the concept of identity, dramatic structure and audience expectations in sometimes mind-bending ways as he explores marginalization, colonization and his Hindu beliefs. 

For a while, the show has a stand-up comedy/public lecture element, with Parasram chatting about the history and import of plays, especially in Canada, that focus on cultural and other identities. One minute he’s mocking the smugness of those shows, the way they wrap the protagonist’s conflicts up in a tidy conclusion; the next he’s validating Indigenous identities.

Then he’s imitating, with hilarious, reality-puncturing accuracy, the deep, expressive lowing of a cow with a Trinidadian accent.

That leads to a disquisition, accompanied by a jaunty, travelogue-style score which he launches from his on-stage laptop, about the indentured servitude of Indians who, like his own great-grandfather, wound up working on colonized British West Indies sugar cane plantations a century and more ago. 

As incense from a small side table drifts over the audience, other elements are woven in, returned to and expanded on in the play’s vaguely circular structure as Parasram examines just what identity does and doesn’t mean.

He belabours this section of the show too much. It becomes tiresome as he sets us up for an overdue transition to a new segment that re-energizes proceedings with a dramatic costume change (Anahita Dehbonehie is the set and costume designer) and sudden, heightened theatricality (Rebecca Vandevelde’s lighting is key here). 

That transition, in turn, leads to the experience of exclusion for many in the audience and makes the show about our identity as much as it is about other identities.

Growing up brown in Dartmouth, caught between a binary white and black population, Parasram knows first-hand what it means to be excluded. “To be marginal it to live with a nervous condition… always watching from the sides,” he says at one point.

That urgent story of marginalization is one which we’ve seen played out in much of this season’s NAC English Theatre and Indigenous Theatre programming.

There’s also a toxic, domino effect to marginalization, which Parasram illustrates. As colonization, whether using religious belief or skin colour as the instrument of power, takes hold, marginalized people seek some form of community. In doing so, they inevitably marginalize others. It’s an ugly and destructive process, something that comes through loud and clear in the show.

We, the mostly white audience and therefore descendants of colonizers, needn’t feel guilty about this, Parasram repeatedly assures us in his politest, warmest tones. But tell someone not to feel guilty often enough, and they will, as he knows full well. Whether guilt leads to insight and change is up to us. 

Overlaying all this is the Hindu belief that identity is a falsehood. As he explains, with a little audience participation and a beautiful recounting of some Hindu cosmology, at some level, a cow, Jivesh Parasram and audience members are all one. Personal identity, while a useful construct for getting along in the world, is ultimately meaningless, so why do we marginalize others?

Directed by Tom Arthur Davis, Take d Milk, Nah? is an unexpectedly complex play that carves a spot in your mind and appears to demand action of us without telling us what to do or think.

Parasram, after explaining the Hindu take on identity, simply says he chooses to believe it. My guest for the evening said her take-away from the show was, “I choose to believe what I believe. I’m happy, and the hell with the rest of you.”

Which, all things considered, isn’t a bad approach to the complexities of the human condition.

Take d Milk, Nah? is a Pandemic Theatre (Toronto) and Rumble Theatre (Vancouver) co-production. It was reviewed Thursday. The show continues in the NAC’s Azrieli Studio until Jan. 25.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.