You will almost certainly never be welcomed into a theater as warmly as audience members were last night at A Brimful of Asha, the mother-son play about arranged marriage, culture clash, and generational differences. As ticketholders filed into the theater, they went past creators and performers Ravi and Asha Jain, who shook hands with each and every person and offered them a samosa to take back to their seat. (The samosas were from Taste of India.) When it turned out that there was a surplus of the delicious snacks, Ravi took the tray around the theater, passing them out generously to anyone who wanted seconds.
The idea is to make you feel that you are a guest in Asha’s home, and it works. She and Ravi — Asha is Ravi’s real-life mother, who is not and has never been an actor — are kind, cheerful hosts, and this lovely, unorthodox beginning to a lovely, unorthodox show really set the audience at ease. There are many shows that do their best to bridge the division between performer and viewer, whether by addressing questions to the audience or inviting audience members on stage, but it almost always feels forced or awkward. This was the first performance I’ve experienced that truly made me feel like part of the family.
That, of course, is the theme of A Brimful of Asha. The show tells the true story of Ravi’s clash with his parents over their attempts to arrange a marriage for him in 2007. Asha, who immigrated to Canada as a young wife, explains, in India it’s a mother’s job to see her son married and settled. Ravi, on the other hand, grew up in Canada, so his views on arranged marriage are distinctly Western. In other words, he’s not interested.
The two tell their story sitting at a kitchen table with no props other than tea that they share. A flat-screen TV hangs behind them, and shows photos and a couple of videos throughout the performance. It feels as if they’re regaling guests with a long, funny story after dinner. For the majority of the show, there are no theater tricks like lighting or sound effects.
What’s amazing is how hilarious and enjoyable this simple storytelling is. There’s no hipster cachet here, which shows that brought storytelling back into the mainstream spotlight, like The Moth and This American Life, have in spades. This feels much more classic, much simpler, far less self-consciously cool — and that is all to its great credit.
A Brimful of Asha is written in a way that sounds rehearsed, but only loosely scripted. It’s obvious from the way that Ravi and Asha talk back and forth, to and over each other, that the two are incredibly close. They make gentle fun of each other, with Ravi going into funny impressions of both his mom and his dad, putting on their strong Indian accents and mannerisms. Asha throws in zingers like “She was average-looking — so fine for Ravi,” and “It’s A Brimful of Asha, not Brimful of Ravi,” all delivered with a sincere smile and such looks of love for her son that it’s impossible to mistake these for anything but what they are: fun, prodding little jokes.
At the beginning, this practiced mother-son banter felt a little stiff, but both performers loosened up quickly and soon relaxed into the story. It’s fascinating to hear both sides of the arranged marriage argument, and one has to admit that Asha makes some very good points. Most of the story takes place during a trip Ravi took to India, and it’s incredible the lengths that she and her husband go to to circumvent Ravi’s objections. Persistence must be one of the special virtues of Indian parents.
A Brimful of Asha will make you laugh and enjoy yourself in an easygoing way that is rare among Spoleto’s usual theater offerings — certainly this year, with the other theater selection being the dark, gothic My Cousin Rachel (which was also excellent). In addition, this is a show that almost certainly won’t return to Charleston, and since there’s really nothing else like it, you owe it to yourself to check it out. It’s almost certain that you’ll have a wonderful time — and you’ll get a delicious samosa or two, too.