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Leela Theatre's Groundbreaking Production Sheds Light on Discrimination Faced by South Asian Women in the Workplace

March 29th, Austin, TX ~ A dynamic Austin-based community theater group, Leela - An Indian Community Theatre (“Leela”), recently captivated audiences with its innovative production, "Anklets in the Boardroom," tackling the often overlooked experiences of discrimination encountered by South Asian women in the workplace. Through the transformative medium of Forum Theatre pioneered by Augusto Boal, the performance breathed life into seven anonymized narratives derived from real-life accounts of oppression collected via story circles.

Sharanya Rao, the Artistic Director of Leela, explained that Leela was established in 2012 to provide a platform for South Asian narratives to be heard. “Our perspectives and experiences deserve a space and platform to be heard. We sought to create a collaborative space where the Indian community could come together to explore their creative passions."  

The inspiration behind the production is the book, The First, the Few & The Only by Deepa Purushothaman which discusses the experiences of women of color of workplace discrimination, and how to navigate power in the workplace. This inspired Sharanya, who is also a professional coach and facilitator, to create a safe space for South Asian women to share their experiences through story circles. From the stories that were collected, the Leela team picked seven that represented the most common experiences of South Asian women. It also represents a cross-section of the types of discriminatory behaviors that South Asian face. It is important to note that the production does not villainize any particular group, but rather, it focuses on oppressive behaviors from different groups of people. These stories were then anonymized and showcased through interactive theatre. 

Far from passive spectators, audience members became integral participants in the unfolding narrative, empowered to intervene and reshape the depicted scenarios of discrimination. The audience became “spect-actors”. The production's strength lay in its capacity to embolden individuals to become catalysts for change, confronting and reshaping the dynamics of oppression portrayed on stage.

Amongst those who attended the show was renowned Indian-born American author and poet Chitra Divakaruni, who commended the production, emphasizing its thought-provoking portrayal of the challenges faced by non-Caucasian Americans, particularly women, in professional environments. “Anklets in the boardroom was a thought provoking play that related to many problematic situations in the workspace that non-Caucasian Americans face everyday, especially women,” said Divakaruni. “Leela brought these relevant problems out in a way that engaged the audience and made them care, we were all involved in trying to find solutions. Everyone should watch the second showing of the play!” she added.

The impact of "Anklets in the Boardroom" was palpable as attendees were visibly moved and deeply engrossed throughout the performance. Many shared personal anecdotes, resonating with the depicted instances of discrimination and reflecting on their own encounters in professional environments. Interactive segments sparked impassioned discussions, with audience members actively stepping in to alter the course of the script or offering alternative perspectives on potential resolutions. Sharanya observed, “It is important to be able to embody power, because the somatics help you shift from knowing the concept to doing the action e.g. speaking up, holding boundaries. We all understand what that means conceptually but it’s hard to do in the moment because we have wiring from past experiences that may get in the way. This is why interactive theatre is so powerful. It provides a safe lab to try out different ways of embodying power.”

Shamita Behl, an actor and theatre enthusiast, shared her personal journey of portraying a scene from the production, revealing how it triggered memories of past traumas. Despite the emotional toll, Behl found solace in delineating a boundary between her character and personal experiences, ultimately overcoming the challenges through a blend of emotional resilience and artistic technique.”Many times while rehearsing that scene, I would just freeze, unable to move or say my lines. I had to re-do this scene multiple times in my head to overcome that trauma. My acting technique is to internalize and then play my characters but for this one, I had to draw a line and had to keep my emotional side outside that partition line. It helped!”

The event fostered poignant moments of reflection and dialogue, nurturing a sense of solidarity and empowerment within the community. "Anklets in the Boardroom" spoke to the power of theater as a vehicle for social commentary and change, provoking meaningful dialogue and fostering a renewed commitment to equity and inclusion in professional spheres.

The second show of this production is scheduled for April 20th.




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