“Bhangin’ It” explores complex identity issues through an intensely competitive North American dance scene.
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SAN DIEGO — Rehana Lew Mirza stumbled upon the world of collegiate bhangra dancing. An aspiring screenwriter working as an office manager, she had finally fallen in with a group of South Asian artists. She tagged along with a friend to Bhangra Blowout, an annual competition in Washington, where teams are judged for the skill with which they dance in the exuberant Punjabi folk style.
Mirza became a superfan. She attended seven or eight competitions. She wrote a treatment for a bhangra-themed film. She became a playwright, met another playwright, and then, when the two of them married, they performed a bhangra dance at their wedding.
So in 2014, when she and her husband, Mike Lew, were exploring a possible collaboration with a musical theater composer, she dug out that unproduced film script. Now the resulting show, called “Bhangin’ It: A Bangin’ New Musical,” is having a first production here at La Jolla Playhouse, a highly regarded regional theater with a long history of birthing Broadway-bound work.
“There are such high stakes at the competitions, but then it’s also a very joyous dance form, and I loved that juxtaposition,” Mirza said. “So when we were talking about what to work on, I was like, ‘How about a bhangra dance musical?’”
In an era when many theater makers are concerned about whose stories are being told, and by whom, “Bhangin’ It” seeks to depict not just an underrepresented demographic group (it does that, too) but also people whose identities are complicated, evolving or uncertain. The protagonist, an undergraduate named Mary Darshini Clarke, is the daughter of an Indian mother and a white father, and is struggling to figure out how she fits in.
The show’s story is this: Mary, a student at the fictional East Lansing University in Michigan, is thrown off the school’s bhangra team because her dance vocabulary is not traditional enough. So she starts her own team — a heterodox group with a diverse range of students and movement styles. You can guess what happens next: The two teams face off against each other, and if I told you any more, it would spoil the show.
Bhangra, a dance form originally associated with harvest festivals in India, is characterized by energetic kicks and syncopated drumming. If you can’t quite grasp it, no worries — neither can some of the members of Mary’s team; in one of the musical’s big production numbers, a restaurateur puts the students to work making curry, hoping the fluidity of movement associated with mixing ingredients and washing dishes will transfer to the dance floor.
During a rehearsal last month, in a giant mirrored studio with doors kept open as a Covid safety measure, the barefoot cast — wearing not only blue surgical masks but also wristbands to show they had tested negative for the coronavirus — worked through the movement, step by step, aiming for a visual crispness. “You guys are a little soft,” a choreographer said. “Go sharper.” The creative team was still changing the script — a new key here, a new lyric there — and there were occasional traffic jams, as groups of dancers, in yoga pants and T-shirts, tried to master a sea of stage crossings without colliding.
The musical has echoes of many that came before it — “Bring It On,” set in the world of high school cheerleading competitions, comes to mind — but stands out with its focus on Asian Americans, and, in particular, those whose families come from South Asia.
Asians and Asian Americans have been underrepresented onstage, and that has been particularly true in musical theater. The number of musicals about South Asians is small: There was “Bombay Dreams,” which opened on Broadway in 2004 and “Monsoon Wedding,” which was staged at Berkeley Repertory Theater in 2017, and there is a forthcoming project, “Come Fall in Love — The DDLJ Musical,” which is an adaptation of a popular Bollywood movie that is to have a production starting in September at the Old Globe Theater, also in San Diego, before transferring to Broadway.
“Bhangin’ It” is distinguished by being set entirely in the United States, and by its focus on a biracial protagonist. That distinction is personal for many of those working on the project: Mirza, whose mother is from the Philippines and whose father was born in India and then relocated to Pakistan after partition; the director, Stafford Arima, who is a Canadian of Japanese and Chinese heritage; and the lead actress, Ari Afsar, whose father is from Bangladesh and whose mother is third-generation German American.
“This show is so connected to who I am — getting into the specificity of what does it mean to be biracial and mixed race,” Afsar, who previously played Eliza in the Chicago production of “Hamilton,” said one afternoon during a break from rehearsals. She had been working on a dorm room scene in which her character is grappling with her dual identity; at the same time, Afsar was figuring out how not to bang her head getting in and out of a bunk bed. “To have the mix of two very different cultures in a childhood, and how does that impact your psyche and your ethos and how you interact,” she said, “it’s really visceral to the idea of belongingness, or the lack of belongingness.”
“Bhangin’ It” has been a long-gestating project, delayed, like so many other theater works, by the coronavirus pandemic. In 2013, Mirza and Lew met a songwriter, Sam Willmott, when the three were matched up by the organizers of an event called the 24 Hour Musicals, at which artists write a show in a single day. They hit it off, and as they talked about full-fledged projects they might later work on together, Willmott mentioned his love for Golden Age musicals, prompting Mirza to bring up her shelved bhangra screenplay.
They continued collaborating on “Bhangin’ It,” often at La Jolla, where Mirza and Lew were working on a trilogy of plays about the aftermath of colonialism when the theater offered them the use of a rehearsal room to try out their new musical. Four workshops later, they are finally onstage, now with the backing of two commercial producers, Mara Isaacs and Tom Kirdahy, who are among the lead producers of “Hadestown.” The musical will have a second regional theater production starting late this year at the Huntington Theater in Boston before a likely run in New York.
The creative team has expanded to reflect the show’s ambitions. Arima, the musical’s director, joined just last fall; he is the artistic director of Theater Calgary, and in 2015 he directed the Broadway production of “Allegiance,” a musical about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The music team includes Deep Singh, a performer of Indian classical music, while the dance team includes Rujuta Vaidya, who specializes in Bollywood-style dance but has also judged bhangra competitions, as well as Lisa Shriver, who brings Broadway to the mix, and Anushka Pushpala, a bhangra specialist who once competed for University of California, San Diego and now teaches at Bhangra Empire in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Lew, the author of “Teenage Dick,” a contemporary riff on “Richard III” that is being staged around the country after a successful Off Broadway run, said part of the goal in building a diverse creative team and cast was that no one artist would have to be the “sole avatar” of representation. Mirza, as the member of the writing team with South Asian heritage, often bore that burden.
“What’s happened before is that writers of color were expected to have two jobs — you’re the writer of the show, but then you’re also the cultural ambassador,” Mirza said. “This show is meant to show the large breadth of experience within South Asian American culture, and the large breadth of experience within college lifestyle. So how do you include as many different voices as possible in the room, so you can actually show where the dissonance and where the friction comes in, because that’s what’s of interest to me.”
The friction in the musical is over how much traditional practice should bend in a diverse society. “The question is, ‘Is it all tradition, or is fusion OK?’” Arima said. “This piece is not just about collegiate bhangra — that is the vessel for this story of understanding tradition versus modernity.”
The diversity gives the show richly complex music and dance — the instrumentation includes a rhythm section, strings and keys, as well as harmonium, bansuri flute, sitar, tanpura, tumbi, tabla, dhol, daf and ankle bells.
“Some of the initial numbers were thinking about tropes of Western musical theater and how to make that through a lens of a South Asian American college student,” Lew said. “It was taking two strong reference points, from South Asian culture and American musical theater, and intersecting them. The palette is wide.”
The choreography includes not only bhangra, but also kathak, a classical Indian dance form, as well as Bollywood, hip-hop, jazz and ballet.
“It’s a great story to tell right this minute, with the intersectionality: I am not one thing, I am multiple things,” said Christopher Ashley, the La Jolla Playhouse’s artistic director, who frequently works on Broadway. “And that intersectionality makes for a really interesting dance musical.”
Ashley said the production had benefited from pandemic restrictions by opening the doors to online auditions, which in turn made it easier for the show to look beyond New York and Los Angeles as it searched for young performers, many of South Asian ancestry, who, Ashley said, “were not going to be all the people you always see on Broadway.” Among those in the cast is a member of the U.C. San Diego bhangra team (Da Real Punjabiz).
“The show is beyond the idea that representation matters — it’s to the point of: You belong,” Afsar said. “Growing up, we always feel like others need to validate us in order to belong. I hope that this show helps young people realize that belongingness is actually within ourselves, and that this mixed-race college student bhangra kid is able to teach everyone that message.”
New Musical ‘Bhangin’ It’ Explores Identity Through Bhangra – The New York Times