Review: Acha Bacha (Buddies In Bad Times & Theatre Passe Muraille)

TPM-17-18-Acha-Bacha_0003 Matt Nethersole and Qasim Khan Acha Bacha - Written by: Bilal Baig - Directed by: Brendan Healy - Set and Costume by: Joanna Yu - Lighting by: C.J AstronomoA new play by Bilal Baig in Toronto explores the intersections between queerness and Islamic culture

Seeing Acha Bacha on opening night at Theatre Passe Muraille was a study in contrast, from beginning to end. In moments I found it so bright and beautiful that I could barely stand to blink, and in other moments I struggled with wanting a different kind of experience. Overall I found this a promising work by a playwright who obviously holds tremendous potential.

Before anything else, I found Acha Bacha – a debut work by Bilal Baig – to be a play whose primary audience and allegiance is to queer South Asians. It is unapologetically performed with significant untranslated Urdu, which frequently changes to English just in time for the non-Urdu speaker to get the drift and most of the jokes, if not the full meaning. To be clear, I really appreciate this in Acha Bacha and other culturally specific work. I’m always curious about the parts that are not legible to me, or the nuance that isn’t, but I’m glad they exist and that someone can enjoy them, even if that person isn’t me.

Acha Bacha (a title taken from a popular Urdu children’s rhyme about the Good Child) focuses on Zaya, played by Qasim Khan, whom we meet at the point of many crossroads – past, present, and future, love and duty, shame and pride. His partner, Salim (the amazing Matt Nethersole) is about to leave for his Umrah trip, and a crash of complex and conflicting circumstances keeps them apart on their last day together before the weeks of separation begin. Zaya is called to his mother’s (Ellora Patnaik) aid at the hospital, and events unfurl from there. At the heart, this play captures the spiky place where two crucial and conflicting desires appear to be in opposition to one another.

The performances of the three primary characters are outstanding, and frankly Omar Alan Khan as Maulana and Shelly Antony as Mubeen are also more than worth watching. The work is connected and thoughtful; even surprising turns never seem to have come from nowhere and I appreciated that (and director Brendan Healy’s steady hand on the helm of this emotional rollercoaster).

Where I struggled in this work was in seeing Salim, Zaya’s marvelously femme boyfriend, remain a largely under-developed character. As a trans person, I have developed a certain irritation with trans or nonbinary characters (as I read Salim) being used somewhat as a plot device so an audience can understand the inner workings of the cis (not-trans/genderqueer) character’s emotions and motivations. I found that when the story moved away from Salim – beautiful and devout, tough and sweet – I wanted to move it back sooner, to pause Zaya’s explorations of memory and identity to see Salim’s arc of those as well.

Overall, though, the work is somewhat harrowing in places and yet feels resonant and true. In fact, I expect that the actors will grow even more fully into their characters in time, and that the experience for theatergoers will improve even more. I wish a little that Salim’s story would grow along with it, but perhaps I will just have to cross my fingers for a trilogy of these characters. Having seen Acha Bacha, I look forward to more work from Baig, and from these actors as well.

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Photo of Matt Nethersole and Qasim Khan by Michael Cooper