‘Brahman/i’ combines humor, seriousness at Kitchen Theatre

By Sue Henninger
Tompkins Weekly

Brahman/i, by Aditi Brennan Kapil Kitchen Theatre Company, through October 29, (607) 272-0570, KitchenTheatre.org. No intermission.

Photo by Dave Burbank
Alia Peck in “Brahman/i” on stage at the Kitchen Theatre in Ithaca.

The regional premiere of “Brahman/i: A One-Hijra Stand-Up Comedy Show” is directed by KTC’s Artistic Producing Director M. Bevin O’Gara. The new director’s goal for this theatre season is to bring a multitude of perspectives to the Kitchen through a range of diverse characters. “B,” played by Alia Peck, is intersex, a child born with both sexual organs. Named for Brahman, the omnipresent God of Hinduism, they immediately reveal themselves to be a distinctive voice, continually searching for gender identity through means both serious and comedic. Welcoming the audience to the show, “B” cheerfully speculates on how many people might harbor “a lascivious interest about what’s in my pants.” When relaying the story of their birth, the doctor’s clumsy pronouncement to their mother that she has a child who is basically “the best of both worlds” also drew chuckles.

Family members are always good for a few laughs. “B’s” Indian “Auntie” provides the majority of the comic relief when the intensity level rises. A reliable tension-breaker with her salty remarks and antics, she is a character that many audience members clearly related to. Who doesn’t have a crazy but well-meaning relative that may frustrate them but who also manages to come through when we need them most? When “B’s” attempt to peruse pornography for sexual guidance is thwarted, Auntie’s gift of an art book featuring stone carvings of nude people (and “B’s” reaction to it) is nothing short of hysterical. Additionally, the performance is bursting with metaphors and barbed historical references to the colonization of India as well as relationships between the oppressed and the oppressor.

Despite these moments of levity, don’t be fooled. This is not a typical comedy and “B” is not a stereotypical character. Though the performance contains a number of universal themes (who didn’t hate gym locker rooms and envy the jocks and cool girls in middle school?), “B” shares many specific personal experiences that can be painful to hear. When they candidly relate their frequently agonizing struggles for acceptance from their peers and valiant efforts to find their place in the world, the vignettes, and the feelings behind them, can be so heartrending that it’s tempting to shut down or tune out, reactions that aren’t usually experienced during stand-up comedy shows. Perhaps that’s also a testament to the actor’s skill. Awkwardness only becomes funny when you aren’t empathizing with the person it’s happening to.

Peck plays “B” to a “T,” insightful, insistent, raw, and thought-provoking. Thom Dunn (sound designer and “J”) adds to “B”’s performance with “J’s” expressively-played bass, laconic comments and responses, and calculated use of body language. Peck also serves as costume designer for the Indian comedian and their sidekick musician.

Scenic designers Justin and Christopher Swader have cleverly transformed both the KTC stage, and a portion of the theater seating itself, into “The Laughing Stock,” a comedy club venue, complete with cabaret table seating, votive candles and a “waitress” filling real drink orders for some lucky audience members. Lighting Designer Annie Weigand enhances the ambiance with strings of tiny white lights and Tiffany-style hanging lamps which added to the club atmosphere. The stage itself is contemporary minimalist, bare except for the two actors, a microphone, and various beverage containers to keep the comedian hydrated.

The landscape of gender identity is a rapidly-changing one. Director O’Gara observed during the previews that Brahman/i seems to “make a slow burn with older people,” while younger people may find it an easier ride. These days many millennials are as comfortable with gender fluidity as they are with technology. Ultimately Kapil’s play is less about labels (male/female) and more about self-discovery; for the creative team, the actors, and those willing to embark on the journey with them.