International collaboration results in play about borders

When you’re creating a play about the shared experiences of people encountering borders, 7,837 miles between the collaborators is nothing – at least for Debra Castillo, who’s been co-teaching (with Anindita Banerjee) the Bodies at the Border distance learning class for years.

For Castillo, the solution to having writers and actors on separate continents was simple: hold meetings and rehearsals via Skype. The international collaboration includes academics and artists with diverse cultural heritages across Asia, Africa, Europe, North America and South America, and is supported by the College of Arts and Sciences and Jadavpur University in Kolkata, India.

The result is “Root Map,” which had its inaugural performance Jan. 27 in Kolkata, to be followed by performances March 2 in Ithaca and March 4 in El Paso, Texas.

The play is an ensemble piece, interweaving stories from different cultures to explore the similarities people experience when encountering borders.

“All the stories were firsthand or from family,” said Rosalie Purvis, a doctoral student in the Department of Performing and Media Arts, who served as primary writer of the play in Ithaca. “We kept finding more and more commonalities in the tropes and images even though our experiences were in different landscapes and cultures.”

The stories are deeply personal. Purvis is the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors and grew up partly in the Netherlands; her extended family now includes indigenous Africans and Asians. Carolina Osorio Gil, Latina/o studies engagement coordinator and director of the ¡CULTURA! Ithaca program, came to the U.S. from Colombia when she was 4, crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally (she is now a citizen). For Indian collaborators Debaroti Chakraborty and Debasish Sen Sharma, the Bangladesh border is a short car drive away.

“We all have a different experience but crossing borders is a shared aesthetic,” Purvis said.

There was so much overlap in the stories, the collaborators say they can’t remember whose story is whose. For example, one scene involves a cow at the border, reflecting three different stories shared during the writing process.

Osorio Gil described the goal of the production as “playing with and across borders together.” The idea, she said, is that borders are arbitrary. “People don’t cross borders, borders cross people.”

Along with Osorio Gil, Castillo and Purvis, Alejandra Rodriguez ’17 and performing and media arts graduate student Elaigwu Ameh traveled to India to perform Jan. 27, which was the first time all the collaborators met in person. The Indian performance also featured local actors from the Chaepani theater collective and a soundtrack created by Indian musicians.

Because the play incorporates nine different languages, the soundtrack was an important component of the production, said Castillo, who is director of the Latina/o Studies Program, the Emerson Hinchliff Chair of Hispanic Studies and a professor of comparative literature.

“Our goal for the play is for it to supersede language,” Purvis said. “In migration we’re all exposed to languages we don’t understand, so the audience will encounter words they don’t understand and that’s an important part of the experience.” Meaning is communicated through music, gesture and emotion, she added.

In each new location where the play is performed, new languages may be added as new actors are added, said Castillo. For example, in El Paso, some actors from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, will join the performance.

While in India, the Cornellians taught a week-long intensive theater workshop at Jadavpur University. “We did several years of curriculum in one week,” covering improvisation, masks and other theater elements included in “Root Map,” Castillo said.

At the end of the week, the students put on a street performance – particularly impressive, Osorio Gil said, because many of the students had chosen to do the workshop to get over debilitating shyness.

Co-sponsors for the March 2 Cornell performance include the Latino/a Studies Program, Engaged Cornell, the Society for the Humanities, the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies and the South Asian Studies program.

Linda B. Glaser is a staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

This originally appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

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