november 2016 | Volume 149
Shekhar Paleja and Adele Noronha. Photo by Tim Matheson.
Brothel #9 is a very dark and powerful play from Toronto’s Anusree Roy that caps off the substantial theatrical component of this year’s Diwali Fest. A Touchstone Theatre production directed by outgoing artistic director Katrina Dunn (currently my student at UBC), it offers a sharp, vivid, authentic-seeming rendering of a nasty slice of slum life in contemporary urban India. The intelligent script, excellent production values and fabulous acting add up to a theatrical treat. But it’s not going to make you want to run out and buy yourself an Indian vacation.
Rekha (Adele Noronha) has come from her village to the city to work, she thinks, in a light bulb factory, but in fact she’s been sold by her brother-in-law to a pimp, Birbal (David Adams), who sets her up as part of his brothel in slummy room #3. Veteran prostitute Jamuna (Laara Sadiq) uses room #9 and prepares food and tea on the street. Jamuna helps Rekha adjust to her new life. But first she gifts Rekha to Salaudin (Shekhar Paleja), the local corrupt cop and one of Jamuna’s long-time regulars. Salaudin brutally rapes Rekha, and her new life begins.
Initially, Rekha tries to escape but Birbal threatens her with violence and Jamuna convinces her there’s no way out. So Rekha settles in, works hard at her “servicing” and starts poaching clients (all played by Munish Sharma) from the older Jamuna—including Salaudin, who falls in love with Rekha and gets her pregnant.
Their triangle leads to an exciting ending. Will Rekha use Salaudin to escape the brothel? Will Salaudin leave his wife for her? Will Jamuna kill her first? And what about Birbal, who has his own problems, he and his wife apparently suffering from “the monkey disease”?
The actors are very good and the actresses exceptional. Sadiq’s Jamuna is a sharp-tongued veteran of the streets, dealing out food, sex and advice (teaching Rekha, for example, to use toothpaste as a sexual lubricant) all with the same pragmatic matter-of-factness. Sadiq’s Jamuna is totally grounded, constantly engaged in the business of staying a live while talking a mile a minute. And when Jamuna realizes that Rekha is challenging her livelihood and her emotional security, Sadiq shows how desperately she’s willing to defend her turf. It’s a beautifully, powerfully rendered performance.
The same is true for Noronha, who makes Rekha’s transformation from total innocent to thick-skinned survivor completely believable, and also manages to convey a sense that, through it all, Rekha has retained some modicum of integrity, has refused to give up her best self to the inevitability of degradation. I’ll be shocked if both these performances don’t garner Jessie Award nominations.
Paleja and Adams work hard at making the rapist cop and slimy pimp fully dimensional. Roy has given both a human side in her script. There’s maybe a little too much melodrama in the writing and playing of Birbal, but full credit to Paleja for helping Salaudin come off almost sympathetically in the end.
Drew Facey’s wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling set of stained and faded wood has its own power, suggesting an unbreachable barrier imprisoning the women in the slum life of prostitution. Farnaz Khaki-Sadigh’s costumes contribute greatly to the sense of authenticity, as do Rup Sidhu’s musical transitions between scenes.
This is high-quality theatre in every way. And though it’s sometimes hard to watch, there is a very dim light at the end of the tunnel to send you out into the night.
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