—Originally published May 16, 2016—
Meet the Hanslick Girls: Gwen, Eleanor and Dania. Created by writer Zach Barr, they are a trio of Northwestern students who always go to see plays together. They may not have the same opinions, but their conversations tend to make for an entertaining read. Recently, the Girls saw “O GURU GURU GURU or why i don’t want to go to yoga class with you,” one of the lab projects directed by first-year MFA directors.
On the walk back to their apartment after the show, no one talked.
In the days that followed, the following responses were posted from all three girls. They did not co-ordinate with each other on the content or message.
REVIEW: “O GURU GURU GURU…,” MFA Project, May 14th, 2016
I recently attended a very simple production on campus, only to discover it was anything but simple. The play in question was being put up as one of the smaller, lab projects that are performed annually by the first-year students in Northwestern’s graduate directing program. The title of the piece was one of the first things that drew me to the show: O GURU GURU GURU or why i don’t want to go to yoga class with you. I will admit, even having heard about the show in passing during auditions for it back in February, I initially mistook the poster for the performances as some advertisement for a real yoga class. Then again, with audience interaction, the show nearly fits that description!
The story concerns a woman named Lila (pronounced LEE-la, she points out), played by Shaina Wagner, and is broken up into three component parts. In the first half hour, Lila talks directly to the audience with little room to hide, telling us about her experience growing up in an ashram with her parents. Her struggles to figure out her identity and challenge her faith are communicated in a truthful and somewhat humorous way through Wagner’s captivating performance. It seems as though the entire monologue is being created on the spot, leaving the audience with a palpable sense of uncertainty—as if Lila could suddenly collapse under the weight of her history at any moment. The comedic use of a Powerpoint presentation “filled” with copyrighted images helps to establish how her past history is still being figured out in front of us. Not all the details are entirely present, and should we doubt her ability to fill them in?
The second act takes place in an ashram itself, with four actresses playing spiritual guides who lead the audience through a session of meditation. During this section, the audience is invited to remove their shoes and sit on a rug in the center of the stage, as if they are really taking part in the meditation session (as I said, it almost is a real yoga class!). The performances from the four actresses is nicely nuanced, hinting at the troubling real reasons they are actually part of the ashram. Much is discussed about the controversy surrounding Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2006 novel Eat, Pray, Love, as well as its 2010 film adaptation starring Julia Roberts. The issues of appropriation, both of cultural practices and of images used in the play specifically, are brought up and tossed around throughout the 90-minute play, especially in its metatheatrical third act.
In addition to this, of course, much has been made of the presentation of GURU on campus as a whole, in a fascinating metatheatrical parallel to the messages presented in the play. South Asian members of the theatre community have come forward to decry this play as a story that appropriates South Asian voices and messages to be told by an all-white cast. To quote from the open letter that has been published:
“South Asian folks have been speaking up about cultural appropriation in general as well as the bastardization, commodification, and capitalization of yoga in particular, but rather than listen to us, the team of O Guru Guru Guru centers whiteness, white voices, and white experiences in a conversation about these issues while acting as if this supposed criticism of dominant narratives is something new and ‘revolutionary.’”
As a white person, my opinion on the matter is going to be swayed by my background. I can tell from watching the play (and from the distressed reactions of two of my friends who went with me) that there is something troubling about what the play is doing and how it chooses to tell it’s story. I could make the argument—and I’m certain the team behind the show would—that this ignorance of the real history behind the piece is the purpose of the show: to critique the specific white-centered narratives like Eat, Pray, Love, which use a foreign culture as the backdrop for the betterment of white people, and the proliferation of the yoga industry in general. However, I also recognize the trouble with the play’s method of critique being, essentially, to do just that.
They play’s first act didn’t bother me as much as the others, since it was setting up the cultural mixing in Lila’s past that drives the narrative of the play, acknowledging the problems therein. It was in the second act that I started to feel a little strange, when the four actresses playing Indu, Rama, Savita, and Bowbay entered and were all white. As they said “shanti, shanti, shanti” and welcomed us in, it felt like an inauthentic depiction of the culture they were trying to discuss the, well, inauthentic depictions of. As I hung my shoes on the rack and sat on the carpet, I watched with some trepidation as they led the room in a meditation chant. It felt weird to be watching this, let alone be participating the way they suggested we should.
But something happened about halfway through the second act that I felt needed greater description. Each of the four women in the ashram steps forward to give their little anecdote about what the ashram life has done for them, from teaching them chanting to finding joy in selfless service. But during one of these monologues (I believe the one from Indu, played by Vanessa Strahan), they described a moment when they learned humility from treating one patron of the ashram with disrespect, only to learn from their Guru that this was someone special and respectable.
The person in question? A vice president at Starbucks.
If the show is going to be an example of an appropriative yoga practice, it needs to go full out into how offensive things are. Have the girls be sneaking sips from a frapuccino during the meditation. Costume one of them in Lululemon leggings without the logos removed. Have them look up the words to the chants on their phones! Make them as white-girl-basic as possible, so there’s no way the meditation service could possibly be taken seriously.
The show, as is, toes a strange line between an appropriative version of a meditation session, and a meditation session made appropriative by virtue of the people who are cast in the roles. With a couple more edits to the script, perhaps it would push the show more definitively into one camp or the other, but as is, the script is a difficult thing to assess on its own.
…which is what makes the show’s third act such a confusing addition. I won’t give spoilers on what happens here, but I will say it made me immediately question whether or not the show was actually trying to be intentionally appropriative or not. Suddenly, it seemed like the actresses should definitely have not been white, but with the levels of metatheatre as they were, it was hard to tell.
If it sounds like O GURU GURU GURU is a bit confusing to understand, you’re certainly correct. I think there is something in there to enjoy and some important message being communicated, but I don’t know if it has been entirely realized here—and the script is not absolved from guilt on that account. Did I still enjoy myself there? I believe so. There are more than a handful of specific moments that are inherently enjoyable, even if one or two of them come from the dry performance by the show’s Stage Manager, Cairo Dye. But I can’t really talk about what my specific enjoyment of the show was when I know that there are many South Asian audience members who do not share that opinion.
Take that for what it’s worth. As a white audience member seeing the show, I found it troubling in content but still at least engaging in message. And, in the end, it’s an MFA project. This is the place to experiment and start a dialogue, and O GURU GURU GURU has certainly done that here.
TWO AND ONE-HALF STARS (out of four)
-Written by Gwen Holloway
TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN:
Despite not studying in the Arts, I go to see a lot of art on this campus. My friends and I go see plays all the time, whether in the student theater or in the Wirtz Center department. Occasionally, as one might expect on a college campus, the shows we see touch on tough issues that can sometimes anger or provoke audiences. I’m not against theater that is pushing boundaries…even as I admit that it is not the kind of theater I most enjoy to watch, I will defend its right to say its piece.
However, for the first time since I’ve been on campus, I’ve seen a play that finally made the dam burst. I’ve sat quietly and watched as stories have been appropriated in front of me in the name of experimentation and education, or as the ideals of a white, middle-class western narrative have been confirmed and reconfirmed in play after “classic” play. But I will no longer be silent. I am emphatic in my condemnation of the play O Guru Guru Guru, Or Why I Don’t Want To Go To Yoga Class With You.
The play, which ran for three performances on campus as a part of the graduate directing program, is entirely written by, directed by, produced by, and performed by white individuals. The stories being discussed in the play directly center on the appropriative boom of the Yoga industry in the US. The play does nothing to address the problems it raises, instead seeming to congratulate itself (and its largely white audience) for being aware. As if awareness of an issue were enough to make its effects end. The complex culture surrounding the ashrams of India is infuriatingly simplified into a battle between whether or not they should be used by white people for the purpose of mere meditation and soul-searching. This is an insult and an affront not just to those for whom ashrams are central to their spiritual life, but also to greater Middle Eastern culture on the whole.
The show’s opening monologue, in which a white woman describes at length her experiences growing up in an ashram, is littered with comments about the sacred and protected nature of ashram life—which are tossed aside as momentary jokes about the copyrights placed on these images. A blank PowerPoint slide allegedly contains “all the photos” she can legally show from the ashram. I was not laughing, and I know I was not alone in finding the joke more than slightly insulting.
I do not wish to directly indict or personally insult the School of Communication, graduate director Jeffrey Mosser, writer Mallery Avidon, or any of the actors involved in this production. I decry the process itself that has allowed this show to be brought to campus without any issue. The systemic oppression of non-white voices in the theatre program on campus created a situation in which no South Asian voices were heard in this process, from selection of the show to the first performances. This is, as the open letter written by my fellow South Asians will attest, a gross erasure that renders our experience as exotic at best, and invisible at worst.
I refused to remove my shoes and sit on the mat as a part of the play’s internal “meditation session.” I refused to speak with the rest of the audience in reciting the mispronounced chant that began this session. I bit my tongue when white actresses performed the roles of Shiva, Parvati, and Ganesh, but I can’t bite it anymore.
This play ignores the earlier work that has been done by South Asian activists and writers, off-campus as well as on, to combat and critique the commercialization and fetishization of our spiritual practices. This play ignores that work, choosing instead to create a white-centered narrative that points out an issue in a painful way, and then chooses not to resolve it. To do so is insulting.
I know that other voices have spoken up in response to this show already. I applaud the bravery of Mahek Tulsiani, Sanjana Lakshmi, and Misha Sinha, who have confronted the artists involved with this show about the appropriative actions this play takes, as well as the eleven South Asian artists who have signed the Open Letter, which can be found here. But if there is no action taken or response given for the presence of this story on campus, I will continue to speak out until our voices are finally heard.
ਸਿਰਫ ਆਦਰ ਦੇ ਛੋਟੀ ਜਿਹੀ ਰਕਮ ਨਾਲ ਤੁਹਾਨੂੰ ਹੱਕਦਾਰ,
Eleanor Varma shared a link
May 15 at 1:58 PM · Evanston
I’m tired of explaining things I shouldn’t have to explain.
I’m tired of having myself explained to myself by someone other than myself.
I’m tired of maintaining an appearance of compliance, which might as well be compliance itself.
I’m tired of my perspectives being labeled as “different” or “other.”
I’m tired of other people’s culture being mined for the pleasure of outsiders.
I’m tired of non-white voices being used to forward narratives that are not ours.
I’m just tired.
And my friend Dania wrote about being tired too.