A scene from “Devi”. Credit: Siddhartha Saha Photography (siddphoto.com)
A family-friendly new work on stage now at Seattle's ACT Theatre delivers an empowering message along with plenty of Bollywood-style dance.
“Devi” is an Indian drama with an unexpected feminist hero, a cast of dozens ranging from age 9 to 52 and musical numbers that illustrate different styles of traditional Indian dance. For many involved in the production, “Devi” helps to keep their family connected to their South Asian roots. But with its Bollywood-level extravagance and feminist message, there is plenty for all families to love, regardless of their culture of origin.
“Devi” (pronounced they-vee) is the story of Prafulya, a woman who rises to power against all odds and in defiance of British rule. The play is based on the Bengali book "Devi Chaudhurani," written by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee in 1884. At that time, India was under British colonial rule and women in both British and Indian culture were expected to remain in the home. Despite a British ban on the book, it is widely credited for inspiring women, in particular, to participate in the cause of Indian independence.
“'Devi' is a universal story of women’s empowerment,” says producer Amrita Bhandari. Revolutionary as the novel was, it was still a product of its time. In the book, there was never any question that Prafulya would return to life as a traditional wife. Local playwright Moumita Bhattacharya was not satisfied with that ending for modern times. In her adaptation, she makes sure that Prafulya not only gains power, but also has a choice about whether to keep it.
Kids are sure to get the message. “I’m not just putting on a show,” says Diya Modi, the 12-year-old performer who portrays Prafulya as a child. “I’m putting out a message that I believe in. 'Devi' was written in the 1800s, but the message of women’s empowerment is still relevant today.”
“Devi” is a co-production of ACTLab, the new works program of ACT Theatre, and Pratidhwani, a local nonprofit incubator for Indian performing arts. Pratidhwani's aim is to provide performance opportunities for artists of South Asian descent. The two organizations have a long history of collaboration — their last co-production, “Chitrangada,” won a Gregory Award.
With a cast and crew of 80 artists, 95 percent of whom identify as Asian, “Devi” presents a significant opportunity for artists who are underrepresented on American stages. But the significance of the show goes beyond casting. Indian history and culture are woven into every aspect of the production.
“Indian culture is very strong. We have very strong stories. [With this show] we are catering to an audience of many cultures. It’s cool to share with people who are seeing our culture for the first time,” says Modi.
Dance is a particular focus of the production. “In India, dance is ingrained in every form of storytelling,” says Bhandari. “'Devi' contains eight Indian dance forms that are relevant to those times.” Critical moments in the story are often conveyed through dance, which makes up a significant portion of the show’s run-time and makes full use of ACT Theatre’s 360-degree stage.
Most of the actors are also dancers. Modi has studied traditional Indian dance since she was 3 years old. Her mother was her first teacher. (The mother/daughter pair shared a scene in the previous production, “Chitrangada,” an experience the mom describes as a “lifetime achievement.”)
Modi praises the supportive community of Pratidhwani. Beyond the opportunities the group has provided, her colleagues have helped her grow in her craft, teaching her about performing in the round and projecting her voice in a theater that does not use microphones.
“Performances are always going during finals week. Sometimes I’m studying for a test backstage and the crew will help me study,” she says. On the set of “Devi,” the community of South Asian performers becomes extended family.
Parents should know
Parents know their own kids’ maturity level and particular sensitivities best. ACT Theatre encourages families to make their own judgments about age-appropriateness, but in general they recommend this production for ages 7 and up, due to some violence, one intimate scene and some adult language. My family did not notice any language and found battle and romantic scenes — which were conveyed through dance — to be completely inoffensive.
For most families, the run-time of the performance will be a bigger obstacle than content. “Devi” is close to three hours long, including one intermission. Complicated storylines and frequent pauses in the action to evaluate the moral implications of characters’ choices won’t phase Bollywood-savvy kids, but may challenge younger viewers. That said, my kids (ages 10 and 14) don’t know their Shah Rukh from their Aamir Khan, and they still found “Devi” completely engaging.
If you go...
Where: Find ACT Theatre at 700 Union St., in downtown Seattle. “Devi” plays in ACT's Allen Theatre, which is a theater-in-the-round.
When: “Devi” plays through May 11 with matinees at 2 p.m. and evening performances at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $22–$42; buy online, by phone (206-292-7676) or at the box office
Getting there: The most convenient parking is at the Washington State Convention Center Garage, with a secure indoor entrance to ACT, but there are several other garages in the vicinity. ACT is well served by Metro; check the trip planner to find your route.