Baswinder Batra, or Boz, wants to leave Raymond, a small town in Wisconsin that has been her home. She wants to move not very far, just 90-odd minutes away, to the university town Madison, and set up a bar. But no-one believes her. With the exception of her quietly supportive mother, her family thinks Boz’s decision is related to her recent break-up with her boyfriend.

It could be a universal story, except it’s not. Love’s knots are hard to break, more so in a close-knit Punjabi-American community, the setting of playwright Jaclyn Backhaus’s off Broadway play India Pale Ale. It’s hard not to miss the vital and overt political threads that bind India Pale Ale – a play that in speaking of a particular community also tells a necessary story about other things, such as identity, difference and belonging and what it means to be American today.

The supposed rebellion of Boz, played by Shazi Raja,and her return to her family occur against the backdrop of a tragedy. There are no direct portrayals of the real-life shooting at the Oak Creek gurudwara in August 2012, which claimed seven lives, but it does loom over the second half of the play. It was this tragedy that had prompted Jaclyn Backhaus’s mother, the novelist Bhira Backhaus, to write an op-ed in The New York Times, for the attack had struck at something symbolic – the roots of every Sikh-American’s identity.

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Manhattan Theatre Club/via YouTube

Rebel roots

Men and women from Punjab made up most of the earliest South Asian immigrants to the US over 120 years ago. Wherever they settled, their hard work and determination left a mark. Jaclyn’s maternal grandfather was among the first immigrants from Punjab. Her mother Bhira grew up in Yuba, in North California, while her German-origin father spent his formative years in New Jersey. The family moved to Arizona, where Jaclyn grew up before moving to New York to study theatre.

As Jaclyn reveals in this story about her, the sense of being part Punjabi struck her in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, when not too far from her hometown, Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot down in Mesa, Arizona. Since then, attacks on Sikh-Americans have increased, despite their growing presence in public life. New Jersey, for instance, has an attorney general from the Sikh faith and the county of Hoboken elected its first Sikh mayor last year.

The stories of Sikh-Americans are only just being told. Her Name is Kaur, a multi-generational anthology detailing stories of love, faith and courage, as narrated by different women from the Sikh faith, appeared in 2015. India Pale Ale carries forward the work. Premiering at the New York City Center in October, it offers a spirited response to what it means to be hyphenated – to be part of two worlds, and to live in-between.

Photo credit: Joan Marcus.
Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

Questions of belonging

The play’s name is borrowed from the drink that became popular in Essex, among East India Company officials of the 19th century. Backhaus fictionalises the ale’s origin, creating a pirate Brown Beard who sailed across the seas from India to Essex. By way of claiming her inheritance, Boz’s bar has the same name. Through Boz, and the tragedies – big and small – that envelop her family and community, the play shows that it is as necessary to maintain traditions and preserve identity, as it is to assimilate.

Belonging is part preservation, while a community’s sharing of what is unique to it becomes a way to assimilate. This is apparent in the symbols featured in the play: an elephant, so exotically Indian and a gift from a brother who died after he left for India, is buried deep underground, while a pumpkin, a quintessential part of the American Thanksgiving tradition, takes pride of place on the langar table.

Boz’s rebellion too is part of tradition. She follows in the steps of Brown Beard, the pirate who sought his fortunes in the New World. Boz’s older brother had journeyed to the “old world”, to the home of their ancestors, never to return.

Photo credit: Joan Marcus.
Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

Backhaus uses voyage as a metaphor. In her previous play, Men on Boats (which, like this one, was directed by Will Davis too), John Wesley Powell’s 1869 voyage across the Colorado river becomes a way for Backhaus to question the heroic explorer narrative, the process of discovery and how outsiders are perceived. One way she does this is by having an all-women cast.

Everyday dilemmas

While a community can choose its ways of assimilation, individual identity must be subsumed to the community. The point of Boz’s rebellion is to state this. An engagement can break, as hers does, but when the community is hurt, everyone must come together to heal. Boz must return.

Three months after the gurudwara shooting, in which Boz’s father (Sunny Batra, played by Alok Tewari) loses his life, the place of worship reopens. The langar is prepared again and hundreds fed. Making the food for the langar are the women (including Boz’s mother Deepa and her friend Simran), who are all broken in some way or the other.

Certain sequences follow a pattern. Boz takes on her pirate ancestor’s swag, his pirate’s dialect, sounding like a buccaneer from a pirate movie. Backhaus wanted her actors to tap their “inner pirate” to evoke Brown Beard and his men. More crucial is the exchange between Tim (Nate Miller) and Boz after she opens her bar. He is her only customer, and their conversation follows predictable lines: he insists on knowing where she’s from, and is surprised when she says she was born American, as were her parents. Nevertheless, in the end, he still asks the question familiar to many immigrants who are not white (like Tim himself): what are you?

Photo credit: Joan Marcus.
Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

Despite the fraught politics that define the play, the cast keeps things light, striking the right notes of humour and poignancy, with the occasional burst of temper. Several of the cast members have starred in different television shows and are familiar on the New York theatre circuit. Tewari has appeared in the film Pirates of Somalia, and Angel Desai (who plays Simran) in some episodes of Law and Order. Raja was seen most recently in the film Brad’s Status. Purva Bedi (Deepa) has appeared in The Good Wife, Madam Secretary and She’s Gotta Have It.

Bedi and Satya Sridharan (Iggy Batra, Boz’s kid brother) recently appeared in the play An Ordinary Muslim, in which a community, already experiencing self-doubt, questions itself anew in the wake of worldwide events. Bedi’s character, for instance, begins wearing a hijab, more confident of her identity and herself, only to be targeted by racists.

Photo credit: Joan Marcus.
Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

Melting pot

Despite the focus on one community, India Pale Ale seems to speak for all not-white communities that make up America. That it speaks for the times but is simultaneously a quintessential American play about families and dreams is one reason why India Pale Ale won the biennial Horton Foote Award for promising new American play.

The sets are minimalistic with an innovative use of light and scenes – especially when Brown Beard and his crew reappear in a dream to reassure Boz. At the end of the play, the cast distributes samosas to the audience – a nod to the concept of langar. It’s something that Jaclyn Backhaus hoped to explain in a glossary, she said in the magazine Playbill. Otherness in America needs a glossary, for whiteness is the “baseline reality”, and the hyphenated others define themselves against this whiteness. But Backhaus decided not to have a glossary. This time in the play, what is the other would form the baseline reality, one that everyone would be invited to meet halfway.

India Pale Ale is playing at the Manhattan Theatre Club, New York, till November 20.