What is it like to be thought of as “new” in a country that is and has been your home for, perhaps, a whole life? This question inspired playwright Pamela Mala Sinha to delve into the experiences of her parents’ generation, ambitious Indian immigrants forging a life in Canada.
In New, presented her by Necessary Angel Theatre Company (in association with Canadian Stage and the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre), she takes us back to the Winnipeg of 1970; draws us into the lives of such a community—vivid, compelling people whose precarious status quo is suddenly disrupted by the arrival of a Bengali bride.
When Nuzha (Mirabella Sundar Singh) appears at the airport, she’s greeted awkwardly with a cardboard sign and some flowers. And not even by her husband to be, but by his friend Sachin (Fuad Ahmed) who has only just learned about this arranged marriage because Qasim (Ali Kazmi) needed a ride to the airport. Everything about this pairing is rushed and haphazard. Even Abby (Alicia Johnston)—Qasim’s current lover, a white woman with whom he is deeply involved—finds out just mere days before her arrival.
Complex cultural and emotional stakes are at play here. Sachin and his wife Sita (Sinha), learning to live with the loss of a child; the liberal-minded, feminist couple Ash (Shelly Antony) and Aisha (Dalal Badr); and Qasim—all struggle to be modern, professional, well-adjusted Canadians while feeling indebted to their family back home, an older generation still reeling from the impact of Indian Partition. As they wrestle with notions of identity and expectation, Hindu and Muslim sensibilities rise to the surface as both points of contention and opportunities for greater bonding.
Alan Dilworth’s direction is grounded in tangible, period detail and nuanced, riveting performances. Lorenzo Savoini’s set, a series of realistic room settings—kitchen, living room, bedroom—is punctuated by light strips that add heightened visual dimension. Because it serves as multiple locations, projected title cards establish where we are at any given moment. Michelle Bohn’s costumes and John Gzowski’s sound design immerse us in persuasive 70s vibes.
Palpable tension resonates across space. During a fraught puja celebration in which Abby shows up to see Qasim’s new bride, their brief glances at each other contain multitudes of conflicting emotion. Unspoken angst bristles amongst the gathered friends too and our empathy is evenly distributed between them. The strained emotions build up around Nuzha’s gentle, timid frame. She senses the charged air, but doesn’t yet understand the complex circumstances into which she’s been dropped. As Qasim retains his distance—barely even glancing her way, let alone allowing any intimacy—her quiet resolve gradually evolves into an assertive, self-actualizing forward momentum.
Though the situation is difficult and heartbreaking, humour abounds. As Nuzha, Singh especially delights with understated comedic flourishes. The moment she awkwardly lays down in her grand bridal saree, at Qasim’s obtuse request to “get some rest,” is a subtly hilarious, relatable human spectacle.
From the carefully wrought colour and texture of décor to the authentic and rich characterizations, New is a stirring, beautifully realized story and a truly astonishing piece of theatre. It consistently challenges its characters and the audience, pushing us all to deeper understanding; landing, eventually, on a note that is both honest and genuinely hopeful.