By James Ong
The Indian Wants the Bronx is certainly an eye catching title, and upon investigation I found this play carries with it quite a contentious history. Written by American playwright Israel Horovitz and seeing a debut season in 1968, The Indian Wants the Bronx has raised skeptical eyebrows for over 50 years, especially for those of South Asian backgrounds. The debut season saw the title role played by John Cazale, known for his role in The Godfather films and also for being distinctively non-Indian. Horovitz defended this casting (which included full brownface and a turban), claiming Cazale ‘is a fine, sensitive actor’. How charming. Over the past 5 decades, the play continues to feature white actors in the title role and the playwright continues to make waves (google his name + ‘me too’). With this in mind, a Sydney-based production in 2019 seemed like a brave choice and while it does manage to cast an actual Indian actor in the title role (a bare minimum by today’s standards), it seems to maintain the same disconnect with reality that has plagued previous incarnations.
The show centres on Gupta (Rajesh Valluri), a recent Indian migrant who is waiting to catch a bus to see his son in the Bronx. Knowing no English, Gupta is a sitting duck for two local teenagers Joey (Elliot Giarola) and Murphy (Tristan Artin), who take an interest in this strange foreigner. Casual racism turns violent as their vile, toxic nature quickly surfaces. This core concept feels deeply relevant in today’s political climate and it’s startling to see these seemingly modern themes featured in a play from over 50 years ago. Disappointingly, you can feel the age, with dated characters and verbiage making the script feel quite regressive by a modern ear. Tact and realism are pushed aside for stylised grit and grime.
One of the most troubling aspects of the show is how it aims to humanise the two young perpetrators. We are given fleeting and intense flashes of Joey and Murphy’s home lives: broken families, absentee fathers and financial hardship. Though it helps to put into perspective how such xenophobia grows, in execution these characters feel undercooked and unexplored. We may see that they have hard lives, but a shallow backstory sends a shallow message: abusive home = sociopath = violent racist. Also troubling was the portrayal of Gupta. Only speaking Hindi, Gupta’s main challenge is communication as he struggles with the language barrier. In a rather odd choice, Gupta is played as if severely socially challenged. Though clearly being in danger, he smiles and rambles away, cringe-inducingly unaware of the blatant danger he’s in and unable to read even the most basic indicators of anger. He often reacts to his attackers as a puppy dog would: open hearted beyond logic. In one scene, Joey (the more sympathetic of the teenagers) mockingly screams basic English at him, which he playfully repeats back for their amusement. Only when a knife is pulled does it finally click he might be unsafe.
One surprisingly effective part of the show is in the set design. The expansive Chippen St Theatre space is left mostly empty, except for three main set pieces: a bus stop, a telephone booth and a cluster of classic NYC metal trash cans. The barren setting sells just how unforgiving the New York streets can be in the dark of the night. Even if there are peering eyes from the surrounding buildings, our characters are truly alone to fend for themselves. Strewn about the stage are crackling autumn leaves that help to create a bronzed version of the Big Apple, which almost feels directly ripped from a Scorsese film: dangerous and grungy.
In today’s arts scene, there are some very strict boxes that need to be ticked to pull off a show like this. Race-appropriate casting and an informed director are two very big boxes, but unfortunately this production of The Indian Wants the Bronx lacks the delicate hand needed to make such shocking material worth it. Ultimately, committed performances and some strong design choices help make this an aesthetically engaging piece, but the script almost demands caricature in its representation of racism, and for a more socially aware audience than 1968, it seems stuck out of time.
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.