Jiv Parasram inTake d Milk, Nah?.

by Kristen Darch

The last time I saw a one-person Canadian identity play (not naming any names) I left feeling bored, irritated, chafing under the performative preciousness of the whole thing, and wondering if maybe the strains of adulthood under capitalism had finally caused me to lose all appreciation of art.

Take d Milk, Nah? by Jiv Parasram, playing at the NAC, brings a heartening jolt of humour and truth that showed me that this wasn’t actually the case. The problem wasn’t me — it was the Canadian identity play, and the clichés and colonial ideas that come baked into the very form. A hero’s journey, the hero’s epic wrestling with the self, the finding of their unique ‘voice.’

Jiv skewers the legitimacy not just of the Canadian nation state and it’s ongoing impact on Indigenous peoples, but the idea of nation states and property ownership in general.

Jiv succinctly and unpretentiously talks through some of the main features, central assumptions and narrative structure of what we have come to know as ‘the Canadian identity play.’

Canadian? Jiv skewers the legitimacy not just of the Canadian nation state and its ongoing impact on Indigenous peoples, but the idea of nation states and property ownership in general. 

Identity? Jiv specifically looks at identity as a construct and the process of identity formation through a Hindu lens, from which identity is viewed very differently. 

Play? Jiv comically spoofs some of the most painfully cheesy cliches that have emerged from the theatrical form. Flashbacks to conversations between multiple generations of a family, all played by a single actor anyone?

But it’s not all analysis. His stories take us through a few time periods, through brilliant impersonations of cows, humans, and Winston Churchill, from Nova Scotia to India to Trinidad and back, and keep us laughing and thinking (and maybe unexpectedly crying) the whole time. 

Music is used throughout in a way that changes pace and keeps the audience alert, ranging from traditional Indian songs and 70s rock to 90s rap and R&B. 

Jiv’s tone shifts from light comedy to frank and hard-hitting firsthand accounts of racism and violence. The more hard-hitting parts, the more emotional parts, are spoken plainly, avoiding the melodrama and sentimentality that tends to undermine other efforts.

The set is vibrant, dynamic and alive with incense and smoke. As he walks us through  concepts in Hinduism that take us beyond the material world, the use of enveloping smoke and light invoke a realm of the formless. We enter into Jiv’s mind through his words, as he grapples with the idea of the self with boundaries around it — me over here and you over there, clearly divided — a way of thinking with deep origins in empire. 

As the smoke clears, this formlessness gives way to reveal a strikingly psychedelic visual transformation of the set in one of the most surprising moments of the performance. 

Maybe it is part of Jiv’s personal ethical philosophy, as tied to both an anti-colonial analysis and Hinduism, that the audience is spoken to in a way that cultivates a sense of basic respect and equality. We are not expected to ‘buy into’ anything or to accept any condescending clichés.

In Jiv’s performance, there is room for both being moved aesthetically and emotionally, and having critical thoughts. In a final surprising interactive move, which needs to be experienced, he opens up the space for a meditation on personal power in the face of marginalization.

At the end I stood up to clap, as I have done at almost every play I have gone to, but this time it felt different. After having just broken down the mental construct of the self that separates, we were in effect clapping for ourselves, for all of us. 

Words of Wisdom from Jiv

“My concern [was to avoid] simply creating a play for a mainstream audience that was simply “light and funny” — a nice digestible way to passively take in Indo-Caribbean culture. That really wasn’t what I was into. So we broke it open — making it a critique of the notion of identity from a dharmic perspective.”

“In a way what we try to do here is set up the material reality of division — through systemic oppression in this case — and then subvert it with the monist philosophy that is inherently immaterial.”

“It’s probably my (personally) most complete stab at what decolonization in thought and process transfers into as an artistic offering.”

“That question — what does decolonization mean through aesthetics; and what does that look like for each individual artist?  — has become [our] research question as we try to contextualize our existence as publicly-funded arts organization on occupied territories.”

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