If you insist on being literal, there is no subway connecting urban America with Liberia, India, Bulgaria and an arena of transformation that may be Death. But on a metaphoric and acoustic level, such a transit system was operating the other day, in a classroom in Silver Spring. There, as a violinist bowed a wavering, keening dissonance meant to evoke the sound and speed of underground rail, a group of actors was rehearsing “Agnes Under the Big Top: A Tall Tale,” the play that will open Forum Theatre’s 2013-14 season. The production, directed by Michael Dove, begins performances Sept. 5.
A not-quite-earthbound subway serves as a central image in “Agnes,” a comic, bittersweet tale of the immigrant experience by Aditi Brennan Kapil. A playwright who grew up in Sweden, the child of an Indian father and Bulgarian mother, Kapil has indisputable credentials for exploring the realities of polyglot, cosmopolitan existence.
In “Agnes,” which examines the connections between six eccentric figures living in America — a home-care worker from Liberia, a circus-ringmaster-turned-subway-driver from Bulgaria, a charming huckster from Mumbai, and more — Kapil found she needed to give her script a poetic, and even fantastical, dimension in order to convey the full sweep of her protagonists’ hopes, disappointments and risk-taking. Hence the subway, or the play’s mysterious street-musician character — the Busker — who morphs into other figures as the narrative vaults between continents and careens forward and back in time.
Early on in the writing process, “I felt like I wasn’t doing justice to the magnitude of the experience of displacement — the magnitude of the feelings that these characters carry around and have to choke down,” Kapil said, speaking by phone from Minneapolis, where she lives. The play seemed to gel, she recalls, when “I allowed it to live on a higher plane somehow — a more poetic plane, something that gave a greater meaning to the stories and lives that we potentially pass by every day.”
“Agnes” is arriving in the D.C. area at a time when American public debate on immigration is roiling. But the play’s roots are personal and predate the U.S. political moment. Kapil’s father was a subway driver; she worked as a home-care professional; she spent many summers visiting her grandparents in Bulgaria. Moreover, she has often shared the sense of alienation that characters in “Agnes” grapple with. “I’m an outsider in Bulgaria; I’m an outsider in Sweden; I’m an outsider pretty much anywhere,” she says cheerfully. “In the U.S., I feel slightly less of an outsider — just because there are more outsiders.”
The need to shift quickly and easily between cultures and languages — she grew up speaking Swedish, English and Bulgarian at home (“It was always a blended language, which freaked everyone out when they came to visit”) — may have oriented her toward a theater career, she suspects. “A lot of people in theater, I find, seem to come from a childhood of knowing how to take on a new role when necessary,” she says.
She moved to the United States in order to attend Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. — a locale that seemed, at the time, refreshingly far from home. After graduating with a degree in English and theater, she worked as an actor and eventually moved into playwriting, specializing in bold cross-cultural and offbeat tales. Her play “Love Person” — which unfolds in English, American Sign Language and Sanskrit — depicts an unexpected relationship between a deaf woman and a hearing Sanskrit professor. “Brahman/i” is a standup-comedy-style show narrated by a character who is an East Indian hermaphrodite.
“I take characters who would normally be on the outskirts or the margins of our Main Street storytelling and put them center stage,” Kapil says. “Because I feel whatever I am has always been on the outskirts of any narrative.”
While racking up credits as a dramatist and director, Kapil (who declines to give her age) became a resident artist at Minneapolis’s Mixed Blood Theatre. That company will open its 2013-14 season with her “Displaced Hindu Gods” trilogy — a set of plays inspired by a trio of Hindu deities. “Brahman/i” is one part of the trilogy. The others are “Shiv,” a fantasy about post-colonialism, and “The Chronicles of Kalki,” a girl-gang suspense tale tinged with comic-book flavors.
Giving theater this kind of ambitious conceptual scope is routine for Kapil, says Jack Reuler, Mixed Blood’s Artistic Director. “Aditi doesn’t believe in the world ‘can’t,’ ” he says. “She writes plays with challenges in them — whether it’s content, whether it’s metaphor, or whether it’s technical.”
Mixed Blood commissioned “Agnes,” which was developed through a partnership with The Rhodopi International Theatre Laboratory, in Smolyan, Bulgaria, and other entities. “Agnes” was also selected for support by the NEA New Play Development Program hosted by Arena Stage, and appeared in a January 2011 festival at Arena.
With backing from the “rolling world premiere” program of the National New Play Network — which is based in the District — the play had a three-pronged debut in the 2011-12 season, appearing at Mixed Blood, New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre and Borderlands Theater of Tucson, Ariz.
Dove, who is Forum’s artistic director, has been wanting to stage “Agnes” for some time. He admires the way the play balances clarity with narrative complexity, weaving together multiple plot lines, playing with time and even switching languages. (One very laconic character speaks in Bulgarian). “It’s like ‘Angels in America’ on steroids, or with ADD,” he says.
Though “Agnes” stands on its own artistically, he notes, “It didn’t hurt from a topical standpoint that a lot of the conversation happening in the news over the past year was about immigration — and not just immigration laws, but real discussions about ‘What does it mean to come from another culture or country and to fit in to this one?How do we really define who we are?’ ”
While offering insights onto those questions, “Agnes” allows directors and actors to do their own bit of defining: For instance, the script notes that the Busker character plays an instrument, but does not specify what that instrument should be. When Kapil staged the play for Mixed Blood, the character was a percussionist and whistler. In the Forum staging, the Busker is a violinist, portrayed by musician and actor Jon Jon Johnson.
The violin fits in nicely with the play’s theme of migration, Dove suggests, because the instrument’s classic status suggests “the ability to reach way back to an older world.”
At the rehearsal in Silver Spring, as his fellow performers helped conjure up the play’s entwined storylines under Dove’s supervision, Johnson strolled around the classroom, improvising birdsong and subway noises — an eerie earful of America, the global village and beyond.
Wren is a freelance writer.
By Aditi Brennan Kapil, directed by Michael Dove. Sept. 5–28 at Round House Silver Spring, 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. Visit www.forum-theatre.org or call 240-644-1100.