A Brimful of Asha: the generation gap in living colour onstage at the Citadel

Nimet Sanji in A Brimful of Asha, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Janice Saxon.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Nobody knows better than your mom what you should be doing that you aren’t doing, or what you shouldn’t be doing that you are doing, or what you’re putting off doing (like getting married before it’s too late). Right?

Everyone in the world who’s ever had parents knows this.

In the charmer of a play that marks the Citadel’s return to a LIVE (socially distanced) fall season Saturday, the gap between generations and cultures, tradition and the contemporary world, opens between two characters, a mother and a son, and the real-life story they tell, each from their own perspective, over tea. A Brimful of Asha chronicles, in a hilarious double-optic (with a stream of tart maternal interjections), a parental quest across continents — under the camouflage of an India vacation — to arrange a marriage for a 30-ish son.

The hit play, which premiered at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre in 2012 and toured internationally after that, was made together by a real-life mother and son, from their real-life story and conversations. And the comic dynamic of the characters onstage is enhanced by the fact that Jain is a Canadian theatre artist, and a much-awarded one (actor, director, playwright, creator and the artistic director of Toronto’s Why Not Theatre), and his 60-something mom Asha is not an actor. Not only that, she has her doubts whether theatre counts as a real job, much less a reasonable career. Four years of touring with her son apparently hasn’t altered that view materially.

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The Citadel production, coming to the Shoctor stage Saturday (it was originally slated for March 2021) is only the second in which the Jains themselves are not onstage. But the play has found a kindred spirit in director Mieko Ouchi and her cast, Adolyn H. Dar and Nimet Kanji.     

From the start Ouchi, a theatre and film artist with a distinguished archive in both fields, found A Brimful of Asha “such a nice fit” with her background and career. Her own family, with its complicated multi-ethnic multi-cultural history, has been a rich inspiration; her most recent play Burning Mom chronicles her mother’s trip to Burning Man the year after her father’s death. Says Ouchi, “Ravi and Asha have crafted conversations that really did happen: real events and a real story, told through a theatrical lens. I related!”

“I felt a real kinship to Ravi, and right away felt at home with the script, both in (its) connecting to family culture, and the verbatim route to storytelling.”

“I draw a lot on my family’s story in my work,” says Ouchi, artistic director of Concrete Theatre, a company specializing in theatre-for-young-audiences. “My first project out of theatre school (she graduated from the U of A in 1992) was a National Film Board documentary Shepherd’s Pie And Sushi about my family.” Mid-development she was cast as the lead in Anne Wheeler’s film The War Between Us, about the Japanese internment.

“My film became about going back to my own family saying ‘what happened to us during the war?’ I didn’t know the details. What had brought my parents together in an inter-racial marriage that in ‘60s Calgary wasn’t exactly a usual thing?” Ouchi’s mom is Irish/ German/ Scottish, her dad Japanese. There was a mystery waiting to be discovered. “What brought these two cultures together?”

“I have a biological brother, and an adopted brother who’s Cree, from the Sturgeon Lake band. So Indigenous culture is also part of my family,” says Ouchi. Her debut film became “a story of bringing together cultures and generations.”

Shepherd’s Pie And Sushi set off an empathetic reverb from a wide spectrum of multi-cultural Canadians. “Ukrainian-Canadian, Italian-Canadian … it’s so fascinating because it’s such a specific story and all kinds of people still felt themselves reflected,” says Ouchi. “Ravi’s play has that same appeal…. You don’t have to be South Asian to relate; we’ve all had battles with our parents, or our children, over what we think is best for them.”

This entry point to universality comes with an unexpected, even paradoxical, discovery: “one of the first lessons I learned as a writer,” Ouchi says, “was that you tell a very specific story to hit a universal truth. It’s not obvious when you start writing…. You learn by interacting with the audience and feeling them recognize and respond.”

With A Brimful of Asha, Jain, she says, “has found a really beautiful mix of hilarious moments, and the challenging dynamics between parents and kids…. There’s a heartwarming real-ness at the centre.”

A big part of the fun, says Ouchi, is “the meta-theatre of it.” The play is “a partnership between a theatre artist and a ‘real person’…. The Ravi character is working very hard, theatrically, to tell the story. He plays girls, uncles, grandparents, his friend Andrew, maybe 30 different characters, everyone they run into. And his mom gets to sit there, putting her two cents in.” Ouchi laughs. “As soon as you do documentary and verbatim work you realize that the ability to tell stories is (naturally) in so many people, part of many cultures.”

The two actors in the Citadel production are both professionals of course. “They’re so excited to be in a rehearsal, making a play about the culture they share,” says Ouchi, one of the Citadel’s three BIPOC associate artists who devised the summer’s Horizon Lab: Where Are Your Stories?. “We’re all so happy just to be part of theatre activity. In a theatre!” The first day of rehearsal it just seemed so miraculous, so emotional, to be here. And then as soon as you’re here it’s normal again. Home. Even if we take hand sanitizer breaks every hour.”

Originally the play was written with a parent and kid working things out across a kitchen table. And originally, Ouchi’s production was destined for the intimate Rice Theatre downstairs at the Citadel. COVID distancing has transplanted A Brimful of Asha upstairs to the 680-seat Shoctor, for a (masked) audience of 100. “Because we’re in such a big space, we’ve made it a dining room table,” says Ouchi of adjustments of scale, including projections, designed to “make the play feel at home in the Shoctor.” And, as she points out, “the distance, literal and figurative between the characters actually makes sense.… A Brimful of Asha is naturally socially distanced!”

And there’s this: “In COVID times, here’s a very sweet, funny, good-natured play. And that’s personally what I’m longing for right now…. warm, comforting, lots of fun.”

Check out an upcoming 12thnight.ca conversation with playwright Ravi Jain.


A Brimful of Asha

Theatre: Citadel, as part of Horizon Series LIVE

Written by: Asha and Ravi Jain

Directed by: Mieko Ouchi

Starring: Adolyn H. Dar and Nimet Kanji

Running: Saturday through Nov. 15

Tickets: citadeltheatre.com

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