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A play about a stand-up of ambiguous sexuality ends up prisoner to its premise

A comedy club setting doesn't do justice to the complexities of this hijra's tale.

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The title character of Aditi Brennan Kapil's Brahman/I is a stand-up comic of ambiguous sexuality—ambiguous, at least, insofar as Anglo-American norms are concerned, there being no viable "other" classification to round out "male" and "female." Born with bonus genitals, this Georgia-reared child of Indian immigrants (favored nickname "B") lived as a boy until puberty started working its magic on him, at which point he found himself opting for makeup and saris. B's mother and the family doctor each tried to get her to declare for one team or the other—Go Penises! Go Vaginas!—but she refused to cut off her options. Literally or figuratively.

Instead, B tapped into her south-Asian roots for identity. Land of a thousand sexes, the subcontinent harbors the ancient subculture of the hijras: a gender category that's served as a catchall, over the generations, for everything from barren women to eunuchs, physiological hermaphrodites to cross-dressing male prostitutes. Although imbued with a religious mystique going back at least as far as the Ramayana—in which their loyalty to the god Rama earns them his blessing—hijras were anathematized as unnatural and outlawed under the British Raj. Only in recent years have there been efforts to pull them back from the persecuted margins. Pakistan acknowledged hijras as a third gender in 2011, and Bangladesh did the same in 2013. India, meanwhile, has been going back and forth: Raj-era laws against same-sex liaisons were thrown out four years ago, then reinstated last December.

B touches on all of the above in Brahman/I, the Chicago premiere of which can be seen now in a coproduction by Silk Road Rising and About Face Theatre. Presenting herself first as a leather-jacketed tomboy—picture a brown-skinned, hip-hop-inflected ("What can I say, y'all?") version of Anybodys from West Side Story—and later as a fully curved woman, she gives us her dude-girl autobiography. There's the baby whose anatomical peculiarities leave her elders at a loss for answers to what seem like the simplest questions. The pudgy, funny nine-year-old who idolizes jocks. The budding adolescent who stalks the hallways at school "in search of boobs," only to find them growing on his own chest. The 14-year-old who turns sullen around medical professionals discussing gender reassignment but finds a friend and confidante in an India-born auntie with a pipeline to the old ways. The pugnacious, rather brittle grown-up comic who takes a fuck-you attitude toward the world—in emulation, she says, of Galileo Galilei, her surprising choice for a personal hero. "There are stranger things in heaven and earth," she imagines the old Italian heretic telling her, "than your genitalia."

In the course of these reminiscences, B also offers some background on the randier aspects of Hindu cosmology, using slides of temple sculptures that depict lovers in athletic pursuit of every kind of erotic pleasure. Together with her discovery of hijras, the sheer undifferentiated abandon of the carvings speaks not only to B's anatomical situation and heritage but to her rebel sensibilities.

Brahman/I is essentially a tale of personal liberation. Which is why it's ironic and disappointing that Kapil has chosen to tell it in a fatally constricted way.

The premise here is that we're audience members at some comedy club, and B's confessions and revelations are part of her act. That sets up all kinds of challenges, an obvious one being that very, very few people can be funny for 90 minutes. Kapil hasn't managed to make B one of them. Her story may be compelling, but the conceit quickly (and, given the playwright's narrative objectives, inevitably) becomes tedious as it loses the unique drive, rhythm, and purpose of a stand-up act—retaining only scarecrow appurtenances such as the repeated refrains "You guys are great" and "Back me up on this."

Basically, Kapil is trying to do far more than she can with the structure she's given herself. A big for instance is the love story embedded in Brahman/I. Yes, there's a love story in there, and it's a very intriguing, potentially explosive thing that promises to show us new depths and unexpected textures. But the stand-up format allows Kapil to visit it only glancingly. Perhaps too appropriately, it comes across as little more than a solemn punch line.

Fawzia Mirza suffers, too, as B. The script doesn't allow her refuge from the comedian persona ("offstage" scenes would help), and director Andrew Volkoff never finds ways to break her out of it. So, talented and energetic as she is, Mirza subsides into an extended sameness. In the end her character feels less like the uncommon soul she is than just another failed joker.

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