The Governor General’s Literary Award finalist play opens in Toronto
Anosh Irani’s The Men in White, produced by Factory Theatre, brings renewed urgency to a quintessential topic in Canadian literature—that of the immigrant’s adaptation to the space between Canada and the homeland—by focusing less on assimilation and more on what it means to live a good life in a globalized world.
The story follows Hasan (Chanakya Mukherjee), a butcher and cricket prospect in the Dongri area of Mumbai, and his attempt to join his brother, Abdul (Gugun Deep Singh), in Vancouver to start over with hopefully better opportunities. As things develop, we’re led through a variety of genres sewn together with finesse and sophistication, including romantic comedy, sports underdog story, and character studies tracing the roots of sexism and racism. To have focused on just one would have perhaps resulted in a tighter performance, but would have also robbed the show of the authenticity of life not unfolding in an orderly fashion.
Director Philip Akin’s choice to have scenes play into each other, like two Venn diagrams intersecting, affords us an out-of-body perspective. By presenting both sides of a conflict simultaneously, he makes us aware that we are not alone, in that everyone around us is trying to live their best life too. Including those we dislike or who dislike us. It is in this key that Akin shows us that true coexistence means leaving room for working things out with people on their level as opposed to cutting them out entirely.
Writer Anosh Irani is versatile in the humour department, adapting his voice across styles and generational divides. Whether it is strings of crotchety old-man jokes for Baba, self-deprecating charm for Hasan, or wacky over-enthusiasm for Sam, his pen stays true to bits that crystallize his characters with distinction. His capacity for pathos, for giving both villains, heroes, and heroines a good heart, is what makes it so hard to write anyone off.
Hasan gets maximum dramatic mileage out of having the odds stacked against him. His mix of sexism and ignorance walk a tightrope toward his dream of cricket superstardom. One held up precariously by his need to do the right thing regardless of the consequences, and by his need to find a purpose beyond chopping chickens to share with the world.
Hasan’s caretaker, Baba, played by Huse Madhavji, maintains a sense of balance that both tempers and confuses his thick-headed charge. Baba is a source of comic relief that brings people together, and a source of reservedness that drives away those he loves but keeps him safe in a rough neighbourhood.
Abdul inspires empathy of a size to fit his epic frame. He carries many of the play’s emotional cruxes with delicacy and commitment like he has skin in the game. His brand of unconditional kindness, humility, and bravery infuse The Men in White with an antidote to the hate it deals in interpreting.
Doc, played by Cyrus Faird, lives that hate with bile for miles. As his prejudice toward Muslims bubbles up to the light, we are granted a resonant look at the dangers and motivations of generalizing from personal experience.
My guest, Miranda, and I, agree that the cast members bring fire to their characters, which only accentuates the necessity for broaching such timely subjects. She also holds Singh to a high standard that befits his talents, opining that, as the run progresses, he will find more avenues into Abdul’s already unfathomable trauma.
The Men in White cuts the romanticism right out of the myth that Canada is welcoming to all, no matter where you are from, or what you believe, by qualifying that people are unreasonable by nature. That there will always be some, whose minds have yet to be opened, who find more comfort in holding fast to falsehoods in ignorance of how much easier it is to just be nice to people.
- The Men in White is playing October 13-November 4, 2018 at Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst Street).
- Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8:00pm, and Sundays at 2:00pm.
- Ticket prices range from $25–$40 and are available online, by phone at 416-504-9971, or in person at the box office.
Photo of Chanakya Mukherjee and Tahirih Vejdani by Joseph Michael Photography.