PUBLIC OBSCENITIES Gets World Premiere at NYC’s SOHO REP: A Review

Public Obscenities, the new drama by Shayok Misha Chowdhury now enjoying its World Premiere at New York City’s Soho Repertory Theatre (Soho Rep), introduces the audience to boyfriends Choton and Raheem.  Choton (Abrar Haque), a Bengali American, is an aspiring film director “slogging through his PhD”.  Raheem (Jakeem Dante Powell), a Black American, is a cinematographer.  The two twentysomething filmmakers have traveled 8,161 miles from their native Los Angeles to Kolkata (known prior to 2001 as Calcutta) to visit Choton’s aunt Pishimoni (Gargi Mukherjee) and uncle Pishe (Debashis Roy Chowdhury).  They are in India with the intention of making a documentary about the people who use Grindr in Kolkata: in Choton’s words, “a queer archiving project”.  From the beginning, we anticipate there is going to be a lot of culture shock for the two young Americans.  Indeed, it is alternatingly intriguing and humorous to watch the couple in the early scenes of the play, whether they are navigating through the mashup of English and Bangla with their hosts at the dinner table, struggling with hanging mosquito netting above their bed at night, or fumbling with unfamiliar electrical outlets to charge their ever-important phones…  Making a documentary may be the reason that Choton and Raheem are in Kolkata, but their filmmaking aspirations soon take second place to, ironically, a documentary-like journey of real, transgenerational family drama– complete with unexpected revelations, personal self-discovery, mystery, and an unanticipated tragedy which brings on the play’s conclusion.  

The inciting incident in Public Obscenities happens when Raheem discovers an undeveloped roll of film in a vintage camera from the 1960’s.  At first, everyone is skeptical that the decades-old film could even be developed– but, surely enough, it can be.  The pictures turn out to be candid snapshots of one of Choton’s late relatives in rather revealing poses, which challenges the young man to view this revered relative in a totally different (and totally mysterious) light.  So many questions arise.  Who took these photos? And, more importantly, what do the pictures reveal about their subject? The rest of Public Obscenities has Choton searching for those answers.  Along the way, we learn more about the budding auteur and the rest of his family.  We learn that Choton may be suffering from some degree of body dysmorphia, stimulated in part by his comparing himself to the muscley Raheem.  We also see a different side to Uncle Pishe, whose interactions with an online pool buddy unexpectedly start to become, shall we say, “intimate”…  

Performed in English and Bangla with English subtitle projections, Public Obscenities is a fascinating, unique theater experience in many ways.  Thanks to awe-inspiring set design by dots, the theater expertly re-creates the family home in Kolkata, where all but one scene take place.  It is lovingly astute to detail and authenticity; the audience really feels like they are at home with the characters.  The large stage of Soho Rep allows a lot of freedom for movement; as a result, there is a real fluidity to the actors’ performances.  Public Obscenities is also bolstered by some genuinely astonishing directorial touches, the most impressive one being the use of projections by Johnny Moreno.  In one innovation, photos taken by that aforementioned vintage camera literally develop in “real time”, projected onto the stage for the audience to see.  The acting by all seven players is just fine, with each performer getting their own moment in the spotlight– especially Abrar Haque’s Choton, Gargi Mukherjee’s Pishimoni, and Debashis Roy Chowdhury’s Pishe.  In the slightly less showy roles, Golam Sarwar Harun as household helper Jitesh and Jakeem Dante Powell as Raheem serve very well in their pivotal roles as something of an “adhesive” for the family; Powell’s role, in particular, may as well be defined as “reality check”. As Shou, one of the potential subjects of Choton and Raheem’s documentary, Tashnuva Anan is funny, sassy, and an absolute delight to watch. Rounding out the cast is the fantastic NaFis, who gets a brief but nevertheless scene-stealing moment towards the end of the play as Sebante, an unapologetically free-spirited hijra.

By now you may be wondering where the titillating title of Chowdury’s play comes from.  The title is inspired by the character of Shou, who identifies as “kothi”.  Too often, a play with LGBTQ themes gets dominated by the exploration of the challenges faced by the queer characters, which are, of course, not always pretty. It is therefore refreshing to see Choton and Raheem so completely accepted by Choton’s aunt and uncle; that acceptance provides some genuinely tender (as well as audience-pleasing) moments.  That said, prejudice towards gender variant people is also addressed via the story of Shou, who shares about being harassed by a policeman for the titular “obscene behavior in public places”.  It’s a reminder that queer people continue face obstacles not experienced by their straight counterparts, whether in India or any other country… 

Public Obscenities doesn’t solve all the family mystery it brings up, which may either disappoint some audience members or may leave others eager to draw their own conclusions.  It made this reviewer wonder if writer/director Chowdhury may be planning another visit to this Kolkata home in the future.  When the young men set off for their long flight back to L.A., another character asks them, “When will you come again?”  Because the audience has grown to care about these characters during the play’s running time, we actually WANT to see that happen. Hint, hint…

The world premiere production of Public Obscenities runs February 15 – March 26, 2023 (opening on February 28) at Soho Rep, located at 46 Waker Street in Manhattan. Tickets are $35 for the first 5 weeks of performances and $45 for performances March 21-26 and can be purchased by visiting or calling 646-586-8982. $20 rush tickets are available at the box office 30 minutes prior to curtain for each performance. $0.99 Sunday tickets will be offered March 5, 12, 19. They are available first come, first served at the box office only. There are no advance sales for Rush or $0.99 Sunday tickets.

Photos by Julieta Cervantes.

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