november 2016 | Volume 149
Back when my kids were little and I was reviewing theatre for CBC radio, I’d take them with me to a Carousel show and interview them in the CBC studio for my review. It was important to get the kids’ point of view because it was often very different from my own—and because, of course, the Carousel shows were aimed primarily at the kids.
They still are. But my children are now in their 30s and my granddaughter is just two, not yet old enough to take to Anusree Roy’s Sultans of the Street (recommended for ages 6+). I couldn’t find a kid to borrow so I went to the opening on my own. So this is a review of a show for kids seen entirely through an adult’s eyes.
The play is set on the streets of Kolkata, where poor kids Mala (Carmela Sison) and her younger brother Chun Chun (Amitai Marmorstein), dressed as Indian gods, beg for change. On their way to school a couple of more privileged kids, brothers Prakash (Nadeem Phillip) and Ojha (Parmiss Sehat), meet them. They also notice that Mala and Chun Chun give the money they collect to an older woman, Aunty (Nimet Kanji), in exchange for only five rupees. Still, Ojha convinces Prakash that they should skip school and go to work begging for Aunty.
Aunty, of course, is ripping off both sets of kids, but especially orphans Mala and Chun Chun, pretending she’s saving their money for school fees for them. But naturally, they never get to go to school. Eventually, Prakash and Ojha will out Aunty and help the other two liberate themselves from her and maybe even attain their dream of attending school.
I didn’t find the plot hard to follow, but some of its finer details escaped me for a while because director Marcus Youssef has his actors behave naturalistically, which means talking fast, so I lost some of the dialogue, especially from Ojha who stutters. But I was amazed at how fully attentive the kids in the audience seemed to be for the full, intermissionless 75 minutes. And if they missed some of the details, they certainly got the idea that the good kids overthrow the bad adult and triumph. The kid actors kept their audience onside largely through their charm.
The four young adult actors playing the kids are very good. But I thought they were playing adolescents, whereas the synopsis in the program says the characters are aged 7-12. Kanji plays a series of other adult characters besides Aunty: a street food vendor, the cop who’s after her for corruption, and a number of people the kids solicit for money. She also goes into the audience a few times to recruit kids to participate in the stage action. Those moments felt half-hearted and the audience kids seemed reluctant participants.
Although Sultans of the Street is not overtly didactic, it offers its audience a few key takeaways: 1) Go to school—it’s a privilege, and a lot better than the alternative; 2) Tell the truth—even if it means getting punished in the short term, in the long term it pays off; 3) Don’t trust adults—even the anti-corruption cop turns out to be on the take, and the only people he chases in the play are the kids.
If I had attended this show with a child, we would have talked afterwards about all these issues, and compared notes on how we felt about the show—which actors and characters and costumes we we liked best, how Indians kids and adults are like and unlike us. I would have seen Sultans of the Street partly through the eyes of a child, and appreciated it a lot more.
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