Night after night, Ravi Jain relives the worst fight of his life, something not many of us would willingly do.
Jain is one half of the cast of A Brimful of Asha, a play he wrote about the time his parents tried to arrange a marriage for him. Jain, the Canadian son of Indian-Canadian parents, was adamantly against having an arranged marriage. He and his parents battled over it for nearly a year. The family eventually made up quite beautifully, but it was still a painful, drawn-out experience — one that, incidentally, makes excellent fodder for a play.
“I was telling people about this story and they said, ‘This is such a movie. You have to make a movie out of this.’ And I said, well, I don’t know how to make a movie, but I’ll make a one-man show,” Jain says.
That’s how Brimful began, but it quickly morphed into something entirely different, and entirely unique — all thanks to Jain’s mother, Asha. “I was living with my parents at the time and I told my mother that I was making a play and that I was going to tell the world what a terrible mom she was,” Jain says, tongue-in-cheek. “And she said, ‘If I got on stage with you, the audience would agree with me and say you were a terrible son.’ And I said, ‘OK, well, let’s fight it out.”
It turns out that Asha was serious about getting on stage, despite not being an actor — in fact, she always thought her son’s choice of profession was a rather silly one — so Jain began writing the show as a simple, one-set piece starring the two of them. At first, the idea was that each of them would try to convince the audience to take his or her side, but it’s gradually evolved into more of a storytelling experience, with the two Jains sitting at a kitchen table sharing cups of tea and taking the audience through this tumultuous year of their lives with plenty of charm and humor.
A mother-son show is not something one comes across often, but Jain says he’d been wanting to do a show with his mother even before the fight and reconciliation gave him the opportunity. “I saw a show in Ireland where a guy did the show with his mom, and it was so moving,” he says. “I thought, oh, one day I want to do a show with my mom and her cooking, because she’s such an amazing cook. Then this story happened.”
That Brimful works so well is due in large part to the two Jains’ charisma and likeability. Obviously, they’re very comfortable together, but it’s surprising — to say the least — that comfort is unchanged when the two of them are on stage talking to a theater full of people, Asha in her heavy Indian accent, Jain in his utterly Canadian speech. And Jain is just as surprised as anyone else. “She’s not the type of person to speak at a public thing, but she is a very personable person,” he says. “Anywhere we went we always ended up in conversation with strangers, at a cafe, or grocery store, wherever. I knew she was good with people, but I didn’t think she’d be able to handle this.”
It’s true she doesn’t handle performing the way practiced performers do, but that works in Brimful’s favor. “From the start we point out that she’s not an actor, and she says, ‘I can go blank in the middle of talking.’ It’s really sweet the way the audience embraces that. We’ve had times where she’s gone off script, or she’ll turn to me and say, ‘I don’t know what comes next,’ and we laugh about it. All kinds of things happen — she’s pretty consistent. But it’s always fun because she’s extremely playful and not self-conscious about it. She embraces the fall.”
Another great thing about having his mother on stage, Jain says, is that the audience gets to hear her side, the pro-arranged marriage side, of the story without any filters. The idea of one’s parents arranging one’s marriage provokes such strong feelings in the West, that it would have been easy for Jain to turn his parents into flat stereotypes, even unintentionally. But when Asha is allowed to explain the reasons for wanting to arrange a match for their son, it opens up the complexity of the issue, provoking a much more thoughtful, compassionate response from audience members. “People have agreed with her, and that was a total surprise to me. People have said to me after the show, ‘When I was your age, I agreed with you, but now I’m your mom’s age and I agree with her,’ Jain says. “I’m so thankful that people are open to listening to my mother’s side and seeing value in it.”
Brimful’s innovative take on theater is typical of Jain, who is also the founder of the Why Not Theatre in Toronto. Why Not is a company that produces original theatrical works, but also focuses a lot of attention on creating alternative ways to produce shows — things like partnerships between larger and smaller companies, or between institutions and artistic organizations, which make putting on a performance more feasible for companies or individuals with little or no financial resources. And at the same time, Jain and his colleagues at Why Not are working to reach audiences that generally don’t participate in the theater-going experience. “If theater’s supposed to be for everybody, then it’s important that everybody’s at the table,” he says. “Like this show — it’s an intergenerational, intercultural conversation, and that conversation is so important to an [artistic] ecology.”
It’s an important conversation and a universal one. Despite the specificity of Brimful’s subject matter, it’s relatable to anyone who’s ever disagreed with their parents, which is to say pretty much everyone. That family dynamic is what’s really at the heart of A Brimful of Asha. “A central message of the play for me is family is number one,” Jain says. “The show, in a lot of ways, is to show that you can work through these things and find a compromise … I was done with my parents, and we managed to make up, reconcile, and find humor in it. It takes a lot of patience and fighting and time, but it’s super important that people find a way through.”