Minita Ghandi’s highly personal ‘Muthaland’ explores the light and dark side of what makes us human
After Gandhi presented a synopsis of her story, Jamil Khoury and Malik Gillani offered to support developing this script through workshops with their Silk Road Rising group in Chicago.
Matthew Dennis, The Register-Guard
Minita Gandhi — writer, director and star of the upcoming “Muthaland” at the Oregon Contemporary Theatre — carries the play’s entire set in two suitcases.
“Storytelling is one of the most intimate things that we do as human beings,” Gandhi said in an interview with The Register-Guard. “There’s something really beautiful about walking onto the stage with two bags and just saying, ‘Hey, let’s share a story.’”
“Muthaland” is the 90-minute autobiographical tale of a young woman changed forever during a trip to India with her family. It is a dark comedy that sheds light on finding one’s voice within a culture of silence.
Gandhi’s family moved to the United States from Mumbai, India, when she was a young girl. In 2009, they traveled back to India for her brother’s arranged marriage — a strange ritual for American-raised siblings.
This journey profoundly changed Gandhi’s perception of love, family and cultural identity. It also brought troubling questions regarding spirituality, betrayal and transformation after Gandhi was sexually assaulted during a meditation session.
“Having that incident happen in India, I really struggled with ever wanting to go back there again,” Gandhi said.
In 2015, after spending years traveling all of the available avenues to heal, Gandhi wrote a 15-minute piece about the assault for Teatro Vista and Second Story in Chicago.
“Once I wrote that story, I just remember feeling so free and thinking, ‘Now I can write about everything I want to write about,’” Gandhi said.
“Muthaland” held its world premiere in Chicago in 2017. Since then, Gandhi’s performed “Muthaland” at metropolitan theaters and a number of colleges and universities.
Jane Vogel, president and founder of the Portland-based nonprofit Advance Gender Equity in the Arts, first saw “Muthaland” at Statera Conference in Denver in October 2016. Born in Indonesia and raised in the United States, Vogel could relate to the story of a first-generation American. After a 40-year career spent as a psychologist in Eugene, Vogel moved to Portland in 2011 and has been putting her energy toward achieving equitable representation for women in theater since then.
Vogel immediately approached Gandhi after the show and said she wanted to bring “Muthaland” to Portland.
Just as much as her travels, it was a suitcase that told her story.
“Part of it is based on finding father’s suitcase that he brought from India when we moved to the United States,” Gandhi said. “Written on the side in marker it said, ‘When I die discard this bag if you like; until then it stays.’”
After Gandhi presented a synopsis of her story, Jamil Khoury and Malik Gillani offered to support developing this script through workshops with their Silk Road Rising group in Chicago. Silk Road Rising is an art service organization that seeks to shape conversations about Asian and Middle Eastern Americans through storytelling and dialogue.
Gandhi finished her story, though she left out the part about the assault.
Gandhi still carried a sense of shame, but after the 2015 documentary “India’s Daughter,” about a young woman who is raped and murdered on a public bus in New Delhi, she felt compelled to include it. India banned the movie within its borders after thousands of people took to the streets to decry the rape culture there.
“I came to the realization that if I felt so strongly about it, there should be no shame if you’re a survivor of sexual assault,” Gandhi said. “I think as an act of activism, I ended up writing about the assault in full detail and that really ended up shaping the play quite a bit.”
Though her experience is the most harrowing aspect of “Muthaland,” the play is “85 percent a comedy, until it’s not.”
“I don’t know if anyone can say no to Jane Vogel,” Gandhi said. “The next day, the wheels were in motion.”
Vogel brought her friend Jayne Lovell up from Eugene to see the play. Lovell found the subject matter so arresting and of-the-moment that she agreed to sponsor “Muthaland’s” screening at OCT.
“This play brings humor to tragedy and brings dark subjects to light through the story of an immigrant,” Vogel said.
This was the perfect type of play for Vogel to promote: written and performed by a person who could not only bring a woman’s voice to the stage but could also challenge inherent biases through an engaging narrative.
“Arts statistics tell us that about 80 percent of stories are written by men, but this is not the totality of human experience,” Vogel said.
Because women do not have a traditional role writing for or performing on stage, this makes it even more difficult to establish that space now, Vogel said. This leaves the world half-blinded because it does not incorporate that feminine perspective.
“People might look at this play and say, ‘Oh, it’s a chick flick,’ or it’s a play about India,” Vogel said. “When in reality this play is a universal story of love and belonging and assimilation.”