Made with supertitles to bridge the language gap, “Public Obscenities” tells the story of an Indian American doctoral student, Choton, who visits his family home in Calcutta with his black American boyfriend, Raheem, a cinematographer. As the couple spends time with Choton’s loved ones, the local LGBTQ+ community and a heritage camera, the piece questions the human need to belong.
It’s a remarkably naturalistic piece for the adventurer Woolly. “’Subtle’ is not a word I would use very often to describe a Woolly Mammoth production,” says the company’s artistic director, Maria Manuela Goyanes. “But it’s certainly a word I would use to describe ‘public obscenities.’ And yet there are moments in ‘Public Obscenities’ that are absolutely still daring and trying new things,” she says, citing homages to Bengali cinema, for example.
New things obviously don’t scare Chowdhury, 38, who has proven to be versatile. He has teamed up with composer Laura Grill Jaye to write musicals, including “How the White Girl Got Her Spots and Other 90s Trivia,” which won the prestigious Relentless Award in 2022. A published poet, he has created short footage and develops what he describes as a “concert-memory-physics-symposium”. He was one of the first participants at Soho Rep’s Project number onelaunched during the pandemic to provide artists with salaries and benefits.
Chowdhury discussed “public obscenities” via Zoom from Brooklyn.
(The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Question : Tell me about how you designed this piece.
A: A few years ago, my uncle described to me, shot by shot, a dream he had once had. And then he said, “You’re an artist.” Go make this movie. This question of “who can become an artist?” » animated the room. And this dream appears there verbatim. The plot is not at all autobiographical, but Choton is in a way an avatar of myself, who grew up between India and the United States and who has always worked very hard to prove that I am from the two countries. If you always work really hard to be from a place, are you really from there?
Question : Did it occur to you that writing the play partly in Bengali would limit the number of productions?
A: I was so shocked that we were even able to find this casting. It was a national search lasting a year and a half. For the moment, we have only performed the play with this one cast, but we are in the process of recruiting understudies. I am the only child of two physicist parents. All my work comes from the feeling of being a translator between generations, between languages, between artists and scientists. This is because I grew up in this house where Bengali was spoken and physics was the topic of conversation at the dinner table. There are times in the play where the Bengali is translated (via supertitles), and there are times when it is not, depending on the audience’s perspective. Plus, it’s a piece about cinema, so having titles is a design idea that makes sense.
Question : As a director, were there times when you said, “Why did this writer do that?”
A: Totally. As soon as I put on the director’s hat, I was like, “This writer is so frustrating!” » My training is that of a theater director. This is my first major solo playwriting debut. I was adamant with myself that I wasn’t wearing my director’s hat while I was writing. If that worried me, I would never have made absurdly difficult choices in three dimensions. You know, the script uses a live crow.
Question : There is a character in the play who is described as Kothi. Could you explain this term?
A: Kothi is a word used in Bengal and Eastern India. It encompasses people we think of as queer women of the center, but also people who can now also use “non-binary” or “trans” to describe themselves. This is a broad category that concerns both a kind of femininity and gender, but also sexual desire, position and orientation. As a queer man, when I returned to Calcutta, I became aware of the existence of identity categories in the subcontinent that do not clearly correspond to the categories here in the United States.
Question : Lasting more than three hours, including intermission, it’s a long play. Many people think that attention span is diminishing. You do not believe it ?
A: I think they are. I certainly feel my own attention span diminishing. But many comments about the play in New York were: “We wish it had lasted longer.” It should be a miniseries. There is an expansive quality to the world of the piece that gives a sense of duration.
Woolly Mammoth Theater Company, 641 D St. NW. 202-393-3939. Woollymammoth.net.
Prices: $25 to $85. A limited number of full-price tickets are available for each performance.