“The Parallal Theater”: A Rear-View Mirror for Your BMW Dream

In his moment of being congratulated by the “Mall Star crew”, the radical — now, a quasi-radical at the displacement of his revolutionary mask which is superseded by a silly smile —, too, requests the “audience” to support his progress in the Mall Star show with their SMS vote: a shedding of skin takes place and a right wing “truth” dawns.

The three intervowen short “plays” and two monologues and a song of The Parallal Theater (Samanthara Vedikaawa) requires a decent review in Sinhala. Of what I have so far encountered, except for an amaeturish, undergraduate-like flip-flop of an article on an English paper, no one has written of the Parallel Theatrical venture; and of which this entry would be hardly “decent” or substantial.

The three “plays” and two monologues of The Parallal Theater move in parallal trajectories that intersect one another at crucial, cathartic points. The enterprise opens with a monologue of a woman from the social denizens, whose words resonate a mother with a grown daughter, displaced within a displaced watta: a woman who, while hanging her day’s washing, belts out across the theater her economic, social and domestic anxieties. The language is stereotypically mudukkufied, clichetic, seen-that-heard-that’ while the “issues” she speaks of are predictable, yet acceptable.

As a person of the English Department shared with me, “from the way the play started, I wasn’t very sure, but….”…. but, the predictability and the cliched quality of the textual surface by itself, for me, was the height of displacement and marginalization. The re-creation of the slum-dweller in recreational prose and gesture, for the consumption of a self-conscious, upper middle to middle class audience seated in the front rows rattling their hanging jewellery, by itself is an aesthetic reminder as to how the so-called subaltern speaks, lest she should be misunderstood.

Still from the rehearsals of "Like".  (Unauthorized usage of Kalpa Rajapakshe's photography)

Still from the rehearsals of “Like”.
(Unauthorized usage of Kalpa Rajapakshe’s photography)

The scene shifts to the first short “play” with a university graduate, a recent draft, benefitted by the government’s latest graduate-employment scheme, seen visiting houses distributing enhanced “seeds” (the pun receiving uproarious applause from the gathering), for a remuneration of Rs. 10,000. The freshly employed graduate — with a degree in Sinhala —, classical coincidence supporting, arrives at the house of his former professor: a champion and vanguard of Sinhala culture and civilization. The prof’s quasi-westernized daughter (who claims to follow a private degree at the SPLIT) and the “aeta-distributor” form a telling juxtaposition, which lays bare the gulf between the student/undergraduate/graduate and the faculty of our Academy. The dramatist’s emphasis is in fact on the “absent” sub-terrain of the education establishment, for throughout the interplay, the culture-championing professor’s duplicity — the duplicity of the Academy’s Ivory Tower — gains definition. One should never ever take your lecturer at face value; for the graduate employee has, and has paid the price.

Back at the office, the graduate employee is located as a voiceless “bottom tier” of a corroded bureaucracy: one where he neither has dignity, nor where he finds himself as being “useful” or “meaningful”. He returns to the office failing to distribute “seeds” for the day, except for one packet, and is reprimanded by the superior. A cleaner (same woman we met earlier), working in the same office — a resident of the slum colony — asks the graduate employee for some seeds to take home: some garden produce, she claims, wouldn’t do her family any hurt. Yet, as she doesn’t belong to a registered “Gramasevaka Division”, the graduate employee refuses to give her any seed. The vexed woman cleaner asks the other: “Then, don’t we belong to this country?”

Security Guard of the Mall in monologue form (Photo c/o Kalpa Rajapakshe)

Security Guard of the Mall in monologue form
(Photo c/o Kalpa Rajapakshe)

This question of acceptance and belonging — which is parallally drawn against an overwhelming sense of physical and spiritual displacement almost all characters are seen to feel — becomes a mainstay in the inter-linked plays. The dramatic project undermines a megalomaniac “beautification” project the state is said to have undertaken, as we meet those who are in many ways affected by it. The woman in the opening monologue (as well as the cleaner) has been displaced and denied of a “legitimate home” and a sense of belonging by this “offensive”. Later on, in the second and last monologue of the series, a security guard of a mall speaks and observes how the mall was actually built on the cess pit of a demolished slum line. The reference, I believe, makes obvious sense.

As J.M. Coetzee memorably summarizes it in his Diary of a Bad Year, “whether the citizen lives or dies is not a concern of the state. What matters to the state and its records is whether the citizen is alive or dead”. This acutely resonates the cleaner woman’s plight and the dilemma of the under-employed graduate employee. A few days after watching The Parallal Theater I had a call from an old university mate, now in the “lost” category of aquaintances; from whom I inquired after the well being of another friend — hers more than mine —, of the “long lost” category. I was told that the “long lost” friend, now at 31, was drafted into the very “aeta-bedhana” scheme and lives a life reporting to work once a week and drawing out 10k at the end of the month.

Coetzee’s flippant statement, once again, comes home in several ways, as I visualize my long lost friend — whose B.A. dissertation for a History Major, I believe, was on an aspect of the antique jewellery patterns of a post-Polonnaruwa kingdom; and who had followed her B.A with a Master’s Degree, too — reporting to work, dignity of labour and her qualifications not even a factor in the equation, doing the minimal of the minimal she’s required to do and drawing out a “bursery” of sorts at the end of the month. Not only has the government and its policy strangulated the expectations and promise of thousands of graduates, but it is fast-pumping out a vicious carbon-di-oxide of de-spirited, frustrated, under-employed, under-provided men and women. The academy with all its deadlines for assignments, 80% attendence registers and hierarchical stiffnesses that are more fatal than thrombosis can, in the face of such destitution, drop a few notches and take a deep, serious look at its own pathetic face.

The second play, Mall Star (with a pun on “mall” when written, pronounced and read in Sinhala), involves a “NGO-type” girl — a youth volunteer at CHOGM, she claims, who is appointed to serve Prince Charles — who is trapped inside a shopping mall with a university undergraduate cum “radical, Shishya Vyaapaaraya” type. The latter sits inside the mall reading his “Raavaya” paper — strictly non-petty bourgoise literature, he says — and the girl arrives with more bags than she can carry, after a profitable shopping spree. The action develops as a “clash of civilizations” — a conflict of order between what appears to be a steely concrete pillar of the metropolitan, English-speaking bourgeoise class and a true radical banking on revolutionary socialist ideology and quotes from Marx. But, when it is revealed that the entire “trapping inside the mall” is a trap by itself — a trap set by a “reality TV show” named “Mall Star” — the tensions and the anxieties between the two chracters take a sudden shift.

In his moment of being congratulated by the “Mall Star crew”, the radical — now, a quasi-radical at the displacement of his revolutionary mask which is superseded by a silly smile —, too, requests the “audience” to support his progress in the Mall Star show with their SMS vote. A shedding of skin takes place and a truth — right wing and vibrant — dawns to take over.

The opening monologue (Photo c/o Kalpa Rajapakshe)

The opening monologue
(Photo c/o Kalpa Rajapakshe)

The third play, “Like”, is perhaps the most challenging, as it involves three tables of a “tea boutique” where three groups sit. One set appears to be a group of academics and activists — a shirt bearing the slogan “9%” on one character being prominant — discussing the future of their trade union work. On a second table is a lonely guitarist, belting (belching, rather) out rock lyrics that, at the best, are parodic of the Lankan Sinhala rock discourse of the Ajith Kumarasiri line; at their worse, they are poetical, yet nonsensical: a clear rival of Lewis Carroll. His lines often reflect the general mood of the occupants in the house. The third table is occupied by a couple-in-conflict, where the young man insistently and repeatedly “asks” the girl to “give him” something; which, the girl refuses to “give”. On the cyclorama, a Facebook page —- the profile page of the boutique owner, David Aiya (possibly a fake account in mock-homage of the tea-kade “aiya”) is projected. The six occupants of the kade are mutual friends with David Aiya and as the plot progresses, we see “updates” and “comments” — on a range of issues from the quality of the tea, to the lover’s mood — appear on the FB page.

At a crucial point we learn that what the young lover was demanding of the girl was her FB password: the refusal of which had the relationship delicately poised. In the decisive moment where the girl, almost at the restaurant door, turns back and shouts the password to her lover, a line of song by the rocker interrupts and muffles what she says.

Collectively, “Mall Star” and “Like” undermine the “importance” we give to the facades and superficialities by which we fortress ourselves. Of how the anxieties of purchasing power play out as “radical discourses” in politics and mobility; and of how we are “already” and “always” installed as a pawn of the consumerist machine. The Young Man in “Mall Star” wears a Bob Marley shirt, reads the “Raavaya” paper and disses the use of i-phones and shopping malls. But, literally and otherwise, he is “already” inside the Mall and doesn’t know even when he is a player in another man’s scripted game.

The three short plays and two monologues are supplemented by a mock-rock parody of Lankan Sinhala rock. An elaborate ensemble delivers an arrangement of diffused, spatially scattered lines arranged without order or tangible “meaning”. The song, however, reads as solid rock shit (longest applause from audience), but the parodic instrumentalization comes home only in the succeeding scene, where the guitarist/lead vocal arrives at David Aiya’s kade, orders a cigarette and plain tea; and starts “going solo”, singing into his lines the “individual moods” of the fellow occupants in the same monotonous and repetitively repetitive key.

The cynicism and audacity in the script-writers to take a bow and throw back at the audience a chunk of their fatuous, uncritical lives — enmeshed with the overarching tragedies of our times, be it in political policy making or in the breakdown in social equity and justice — should ideally begin in “delight” and end in “wisdom”. With humour and provocation on one hand, the dramatists use the sharp instrument of an insistent political education, urging the redeemable but to take a paused glance; and for the irredeemable others, just to laught and to move on.

It is my hope that a competent writer will supplement a worthier entry on Parallal Theater’s improvisation. There are several critical observations that I, upon first encounter, made of the play which I haven’t incorporated here, for such comments would offset the spirit of my essay. A supplementary effort could easily facilitate these observations. A list of names of the Parallal Theater (in no particular order) and its technical / various crew follows:

Crystal Baines, Dhanuka Bandara, Ashan Weerasinghe, Isuru Samaranayaka, Rajitha Niroshana, Athula Samarakoon, Chathurika Sachinthanie, Sandamini Ranwalage, Praweena Bandara, Sammitha Meegaskumbura, Ruwanthi Edirisinghe, Kalpa Rajapakshe and Reeni De Silva.

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