“Universalism vs Pluralversalism and Exploring Voice” In Conversation with Jivesh Parasram & Tom Arthur Davis on THE ONLY GOOD INDIAN at SummerWorks
Interview by Brittany Kay
Jivesh Parasram, Tom Arthur Davis and Donna-Michelle St. Bernard are three incredibly talented theatre creators and performers. Each have their own unique and important voice, which they bring to The Only Good Indian running at this year’s SummerWorks Performance Festival. We sat down with Jiv and Tom to discuss the major narratives and ideas explored in this piece: identity, occupation and personal history.
Brittany Kay: Tell me a little bit about your show.
Tom Arthur Davis: It’s hard to talk about without giving things away about it.
Jiv Parasram: Uh… fuck. Our tagline is “part lecture, part meditation, part threat.”
BK: Yes and what does that mean?
JP: Can’t tell you too much about it.
JP: It’s roughly half pre-written material that deals with issues of occupation, colonization (and decolonization, depending on your angle of it) and some pretty dense political theory, but told in a pretty interesting way. It’s specifically about the lives that we value and the lives that we don’t. The other half of it is written by the performer who’s doing it that night through a series of guided prompt questions that ask them to mine parts of their own living experience and identity. People play a version of themselves, I would say, and there is a spectrum of that depending on who is doing it, some of it is a little bit more autobiographical, some is less. If that makes sense?
BK: That makes sense. Do you want to add anything Tom?
TAD: Yeah, it’s also a pluralversal exercise, to show that many parts make the whole, specifically in regards to, I guess, what we are calling “Indianhood” and what that means. Where are we indigenous to who are the Indigenous people where we are now and how do we try to find some sort of empathy or connection.
JP: It’s kind of how you find your way into the story. A lot of it has to do with how you experience homogenous otherness, or that you witness it, or that you’ve felt it on yourself. Tribalism is part of that, where you associate with and where you don’t.
Pluralversal is not a term many people are waxin’ around with.
JP: It’s a bit of an antithesis to universality.
BK: Expand on that.
JP: The principal of universalism means that there is one universal truth and often that tends to just be the dominant way of thinking about that. Often it’s a Eurocentric kind of truth related to structures of power that have been there a long time. But Pluralversal thinking comes from like Zapatista philosophy […] there are multiple universes and multiple universal truths all informed by different cosmologies too, so different ways of thinking about the world. Those all come together to make up a whole truth and they don’t always have to agree, so it’s not binary.
BK: Very interesting.
JP: So that’s why we are getting different people to do it and look through it. Hopefully through that we will, maybe, find some commonalities with it. I don’t know. We’ll find out!
BK: Where did this idea first come from to create this show? What was the inspiration behind this work?
JP: Basically, I spent five years researching the politics of death… and that kind of fucked me up, like real bad. Then I started writing a couple of different pieces all dealing with it […] I wrote this piece, a piece called The Only Good Indian, which got published by Playwrights Canada Press in a ten-minute anthology. Which was different from what we are doing. That’s a two-hander play where some of the themes are still there.
It was based on an article about liquidity and identity in South Asian males in the U.K during the War on Terror, where it was saying that there are fewer options and representation for them. The twist of it was that they were identifying with these terrorists back ‘home’, talking about Pakistan and India but one is from Guyana and one is from Trinidad, so they are not actually from there but they have still internalized it. Then we got accepted to the Rhubarb Festival to expand it, which was the original idea. We were trying to figure out an interesting way to do that. There was so much going on at that time in the world.
TAD: That Turkish ambassador was assassinated in Russia and we just thought that the piece would be about a standoff between two brown guys wearing vests, one being a cop wearing a bullet proof vest and the other with a suicide vest on and he’s trying to talk him out of it. We didn’t know if it would make sense to have a South Asian body wearing a suicide vest in a naturalistic context for this Rhubarb performance after that had happened.
JP: It just seemed like it was supporting the mainstream narrative to a certain point. The central theme that I had trouble with, was saying that I can’t ever represent one voice on this. I asked Tom to do it with me and we came up with a process for writing somewhat different but related pieces. I think it was super brave of Tom to do it…
TAD: Oh shucks.
JP: …because, you know, if I’m in a piece that’s called The Only Good Indian versus if Tom is, it’s going to be differently received just off the bat.
BK: Totally. Let’s talk about the different voices in this piece. You have Donna Michelle St. Bernard also speaking the same text?
TAD: Some of it. The pre-written part yes and the other half depends on the performer and what they write based off of the given prompts. It’s quite different hearing different bodies saying the text that each of us share in the show. You will get a different reaction to what Jiv is saying than if I’m saying it, whatever that reaction might be, positive or negative, for either of us.
JP: The first line of the play is “Can I say Indian?” which is quite different when I say it, versus when Tom says it. It’s an interesting thing to have to mitigate. We had a lot of discussions about how to do that, trying to figure out how to not make an audience shut off.
BK: What kind of reactions do you want from audiences? I heard there were some people walking out at the Rhubarb performance. Is that what you want?
TAD: No, we don’t want that. We want them to listen.
JP: And a negative reaction is valid too. We understand why people might want to walk out, but I think that if people can listen, the intention is to get them to rethink some of these perceptions towards identity. The SummerWorks performances will all be followed by long table discussions, which is one of the things that we didn’t have at Rhubarb, that ability to talk to the audience. We couldn’t talk to them beyond just chatting with them after if we saw them.
TAD: Also very few people at Rhubarb saw both performances to see the differences between them and see what that means.
BK: So it’s advantageous for audiences to see all three performances at SummerWorks?
JP: Absolutely, it’s a different show each time. I think it would be cool. Even if some of the text is the same, it’s radically different depending on what has preceded it and what follows it. The meaning can change.
BK: Why is it important for audiences right now to see this show?
JP: For me, it’s for the politics of representation right now. If there was going to be a central lecture in this piece it would be discussing the division of what we are calling a “Death World/Life World” perception. There are parts of the world where it’s expected that people live and parts of the world where it is expected that they die. Our tolerance for death is different depending on where you’re at. I think part of it is the debate of appropriation right now, which I think comes from not having any connection or knowledge of your own story. People have all sorts of histories that they need to mine.
TAD: My piece is about losing that sense of identity and being white washed quite literally.
BK: What about Donna-Michelle St. Bernard’s?
JP: She’s talking about Grenada. She has a very different spin on occupation. She’s really running with the material and basing it a lot off of setting up the lectures. She doesn’t go directly for something, but has this articulate, subtle way of talking around it. A big factor of hers has to do with success and choice. Accepting and loving certain labels that have been colonially put on you, but then acknowledging how fucked up those labels might be.
BK: I want to see how all three collectively intersect!
TAD: Eventually the hope would be that we could have a different performer every night, not just three. Put it out into the ether and then people could just do their own.
JP: We would like to be able to tour and just show up somewhere and be like, “We would like to employ seven of your local artists.” It’s more interesting to me that way.
BK: What do you want audiences walking away with?
JP: I want them to engage in the conversation. Maybe rethink some of their perceptions.
TAD: It’s hard to say, because we are three different performers. What do we want them coming out with from my piece or Jiv’s or DM’s? If they see all 3 then they are getting the pluralversal idea. Some pieces might make you angry and some might make you reflect and others might make you need to talk about something. It will really differ.
BK: Do you have other SummerWorks shows you’re excited to see?
TAD: Boys in Chairs.
BK: It’s a very good year! Anything else we need to know?
JP: The only thing I would say is that some of the content we do can be pretty disturbing and we’re in discussions right now about what warnings we need to put up and also to let people know that they can leave and we won’t be offended. It can be pretty heavy. It also will be different for each show, so if people want to write to me and say I need to know what I’m walking into, I’m happy to write to them and give them a heads up and let them know what they are going to see.
The Only Good Indian
Company: Pandemic Theatre
Project Design by Jivesh Parasram
Co-Created by Jivesh Parasram, Tom Arthur Davis, and Donna-Michelle St. Bernard
The listed run time includes a 30 minute Long Table Discussion that will take place after every performance.
Part lecture, part meditation, and part threat, The Only Good Indian takes a shockingly raw look at where our similarities begin and where they end. Each night a different performer straps themselves into an extreme situation – forcing the audience to ask – what would you die for?
Factory Theatre Studio
125 Bathurst Street, Toronto, ON
Friday August 11th 8:45pm – 10:00pm
Saturday August 12th 9:00pm – 10:15pm
Sunday August 13th 3:30pm – 4:45pm