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Chief Ike’s Mambo Room, 1725 Columbia Road NW
Saturday, July 16 at 8:00 p.m.
They say: “Comedian Vijai Nathan breaks every taboo as she exposes the underbelly of an Indian American family. She takes you through growing up Indian in a Jewish community: discovering sex in a repressed Hindu household, and finding herself along the way.”
Adam’s Take: Being a stranger in a strange land is never easy. More difficult, still, is being a stranger in the country of your birth. A pure natural on the stage, imagining a setting in which Vijai Nathan feels less than completely at ease, much less foreign, seems inconceivable. A self-described “seductress of storytelling,” Nathan keeps the audience waiting to hear her next line (and speculating whether it can be funnier than the last). Yet growing up with brown skin in an all-white community, the daughter of recent Indian immigrants, she struggled from an early age with questions of identity and self, trying to relate to her classmates who she recognized as being different.
Elementary school plays were only the first of several awakenings. As the only person of color in her class, certain roles seemed to fit naturally into her young acting repertoire. And a life as a performer was what she aspired to do. Her parents, meanwhile, had another professional path in mind that was to lead her straight into a med school cap and gown before she was even out of her teens. They hoped for a wedding dress to follow a few years later.
Of course, the arranged marriage in store for Nathan would not have been particularly compatible with the matchmaking parables of the 80s films she was watching then, starring Molly Ringwald and others. By the time she’s off to college, Nathan fully relishes her American-born freedom, at odds with her Hindu upbringing. One day, in the rain, she falls in love with a Jewish Long Islander. A chic Hin-Jew wedding seems just around the corner. However, the relationship makes Nathan reconsider whether she can just let go of the Indian part of her, despite her best of efforts earlier in life.
Nathan has no fear of intimacy with her audience. She will readily reveal secrets about herself that most people would keep locked away. Those moments of vulnerability, almost a sign of some deeper trust with those who gather to hear her, are critical for an effective raconteur such as herself. Nathan can also paint vivid scenes through her words and actions, from samosas being devoured by rats to her grandmother speaking Tamil on her visit to Madras. The details about Nathan’s life are all there. Hearing more self-reflection about them would have made the narrative even more riveting. Nathan only briefly mentions her two older sisters, but it sounds like she is their complete opposite. What does she think made her different? What would have happened if she had grown up in a predominately Indian community, either in the United States or elsewhere? Nathan has good stories to share and should elaborate more on the impact she thinks they had in making her who she is.
In the sixth grade, Nathan was randomly drawn to be the soothsayer in her school’s performance of Julius Caesar. She took the role to heart informing Caesar (and the audience), with much theatrics, of his impending demise. It was a part that fit her well even outside the school playhouse. Nathan knew at an early age that the stage would be her home. She realized she was destined to be a performer. An audience at any one of her shows has much to appreciate for that prophecy coming true.
See it if: You think stories that span two continents are a much better way of traveling the globe than having to book an international flight.
Skip it if: Personal details about family issues growing up are, in your opinion, only to be shared with one’s therapist.