The Great Celestial Cow
Murphey School Auditorium, Raleigh
In a week when our chief executive compared the odyssey immigrants endure to a vacation—“like, ‘Let’s go to Disneyland’”—Burning Coal Theatre Company’s production of The Great Celestial Cow administers a needed corrective to that jaded, fictive political narrative.
In the 1980s, British playwright Sue Townsend witnessed the xenophobia and racism that Indian expatriates encountered in the United Kingdom. She also saw the wrenching cultural disorientation and sometimes vicious intergenerational schisms that erupted when younger, more progressive women bridled at the sexism and caste-based prejudices of their elders. Life for Indian women in England was no vacation, and Townsend’s drama was an attempt, groundbreaking in its 1984 premiere at London’s Royal Court Theatre, to place their concerns on a national stage.
Unfortunately, thirty-five years later, The Great Celestial Cow reads as the underdeveloped, episodic work of an outsider. To be fair, Townsend interrogates not only gender bias, but also the hierarchies between family members she saw in Leicester. For five years, the exhausted Sita (a vivid Seema Kukreja) and her children have been separated from their husband and father, who left India for England before them, with his mother and sister. Cow shows how temporary separations can seed permanent estrangements. But Townsend leaves out too many dots in Sita’s downward spiral. In one scene, she’s taking part in a good-natured roast of her son, Prem, as a potential young husband-to-be. In the next, she’s having a psychotic breakdown in front of a mirror.
Under Sonia Desai’s uncertain direction, there’s little subtlety in the disdain mother-in-law Dadima (Snehal Bhagwat) and Auntie Masi (Maneesha Lassiter) have for Sita or their preference for Prem (a one-dimensional Darius Shafa) over Sita’s daughter, Bibi (a promising Priya Singh). In his debut, Deepak Dhar doesn’t believably convey the love or menace of Raj, the family patriarch. Joey DeSena and Kelly Buynitzsky have the thankless task of playing brief, flat supporting roles—a racist greengrocer, a clueless British hippy. At least Pimpila Violette is amusing as the tasteless suitor whose arranged-marriage attempt is deftly derailed by Bibi.
Neena Rai’s colorful costumes include an imaginative take on the goddess Kali, and Danielle James’s full-size rendering of Sita’s beloved cow, Princess, gives emotional presence to a symbol of lost holiness and community. But on opening night, Desai hadn’t solved the problems that a cascade of short scenes—with lengthy changes in between—pose to the show’s pacing.
The region’s Asian population, along with its Latinx and African-American communities, rarely see their stories on stage. But a problematic script and an uneven cast make The Great Celestial Cow a largely squandered opportunity, at a time when we need to hear such communities tell their own stories.