A collaboration between Touchstone Theatre and Diwali Fest, Brothel #9 is a harrowing drama written by award-winning playwright Anusree Roy. It follows young Rekha (Adele Noronha) as she arrives in Calcutta for what she thinks is a job in a lightbulb factory, which her brother-in-law arranged for her. Instead, she finds herself sold to brothel owner Birbal (David Adams), unable to escape. She naively seeks the help of police chief Salaudin (Shekhar Paleja), but unsurprisingly he is a regular client, even taking a cut of the brothel income. Jamuna (Laara Sadiq), the seemingly ruthless and hardened older worker “gifts” Rekha’s virginity to Salaudin.
Throughout the play, the characters and their interpersonal relationships develop far beyond what we are first presented with. Jamuna grows almost maternal towards Rekha, until Rekha starts to take her clients. Salaudin seemingly falls in love with Rekha and the two develop a relationship. Rekha finds out she is pregnant with his child and, when she refuses to go through with an abortion, he eventually agrees to leave his wife and kids, and get Rekha a house. For a part of the play, there is an idyllic sense that Rekha will get a Pretty Woman-esque ending. But Brothel #9 is no fairy tale and it presents no illusions. Rekha soon learns gruesome details from Jamuna and Salaudin’s shared past and Salaudin tells Rekha he can no longer be with her. The part of Rekha’s story that the audience is privy to leaves her alone and betrayed.
Laara Sadiq is particularly brilliant at capturing the complexity and the pain of her character, Jamuna, who must come to terms with the process of aging and must address her past. We watch as Rekha hardens, no longer the scared but hopeful virginal young woman she was at the beginning. While Birbal watches his wife deteriorate and die from “monkey disease”, eventually falling victim to it himself, Salaudin struggles with maintaining a sense of morality in the face of all the things he has done.
There is no aspect of Brothel #9 that leaves the audience wanting. The set takes advantage of the intimate setting of The Cultch’s Culture Lab, the sound and lighting are well done, and the costumes are beautiful. However, the main strength of the play is most certainly the complexity and rawness of the characters; they have all done things of which they are deeply ashamed, but they are all ultimately trying to live with their pasts and survive in whichever ways they can. None of the characters lack complexity, and within each character we find something to empathize with. But we also see suffering, hardship, things we may otherwise find immoral. This speaks to the credit of both the writing, the acting, and the direction that brought those characters to life.
Be warned, however, that this is not an easy play to watch; topics including rape, abortion, sex trafficking, violence against women, and poverty are presented in the rawest form possible for a stage play—nothing is held back, not by the playwright, director, or actors. That being said, it is powerful, and the play does not pretend to glorify or beautify any of the issues. The characters lose their happy endings in the play, and the audience is left feeling the searing pain of their journeys. Brothel #9 is not heart-warming, nor it is a feel-good play, but it is beautifully written and a powerful portrayal of the complexity of the human condition, and the struggle for survival.
Brothel #9 is playing at The Cultch as part of Diwali Fest until Sunday, November 27. More information and tickets can be found here.