Author Mitali Perkins’ award-winning children’s book, Rickshaw Girl, tells the touching story of Naima, an artistic ten-year-old in an impoverished Bangladeshi village who yearns to help her hard-working father, a rickshaw driver, earn more money for the family, writes Vivian Auslander. (#BACT, #BayAreaChildrensTheatre, #Siliconeer, @Siliconeer, #RickshawGirl, #MitaliPerkins)
Perkins, who lives in Orinda, Calif., grew up speaking Bangla and hearing her parents’ stories about their life in the part of the world we know today as Bangladesh. Later, she spent three years in Bangladesh, meeting the people, learning what they hold dear, and observing the impact of changes, like the advent of microcredit, on local customs and culture.
When Nina Meehan, executive director of the Bay Area Children’s Theatre (BACT), read Perkins’ book, she knew immediately that she wanted to bring Naima’s daring adventure to the stage for children and their families to see.
“Naima’s story opens a window on a different culture for our young audiences, which is so important for their experience, yet it has universal appeal in its depiction of courage, duty and caring,” Meehan said.
BACT commissioned critically acclaimed playwright Aditi Kapil to adapt Perkins’ novel, and the world premiere of Rickshaw Girl was born! Of Indian and Bulgarian descent, Kapil was raised in Sweden and resides in Minneapolis, MN. In addition to her work for BACT, she is currently working on commissions with Yale Repertory Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, South Coast Repertory Theatre, and Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Directed by Vidhu Singh, with live music by vocalist Sonali Bhattacharya, percussionist Amit Sharma, and others, Rickshaw Girl opened at the Front Row Theater in San Ramon, Calif., and played weekends, April 2-10, at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. After San Ramon, the production travels to San Francisco, where it plays weekends, April 16 – May 1, and completes its run in Berkeley, Calif., weekends, May 7 – 22.
Perkins has worked with Singh and Kapil to help them develop the show, contributing to the authenticity of the production by contacting a friend, an educator in Bangladesh, to learn what songs daughters of rickshaw pullers sing these days and what games they play. These songs—everything from a lullaby to a patriotic song—will be sung in Bangla. Perkins also brought her mother to rehearsal to teach the actors how to paint alpanas, the traditional designs that figure prominently in the story.
Describing the rehearsal process, Perkins said, “It’s magical! When I watch these fabulous actors and see the story in the flesh on the stage, I find myself being curious for Naima and wondering what’s going to happen to her, and I have to remind myself that I know what happens to her—I wrote the book!”
Director Singh of San Francisco has devoted her career to nurturing South Asian theatre and bringing work from around the globe to the stage. Born and raised in India, she holds a master’s degree in Dramatic Art from the University of California at Santa Barbara and a doctorate in Asian Theatre from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, specializing in contemporary Indian theater.
“This play is so up my alley,” Singh said. “I’m so grateful it came to me. When I heard about it, I got a copy of the book—it’s one of the best children’s books I’ve ever read. It is a sweet, empowering story that is important for girls all over the world. The story is a window to another culture but it’s also a mirror—Naima learns that, with a little ingenuity and a lot of courage and grit, she can recover from a terrible mistake and make things right for herself and her family. Kids can see that they have so much in common with her.”
The play, Singh explained, is “an ensemble piece” that blends theatre, dance and Bangla songs. Five actors play the primary characters as well as secondary roles. The ensemble also functions as a chorus, becoming school children learning the Bangla alphabet, villagers celebrating International Mother Language Day, vendors selling wares, farmers toiling in the rice fields, town dwellers—a vibrant microcosm of life in Bangladesh.
“This is very important work,” Singh said, explaining that Bangladeshi culture has rarely been reflected in American theatre or even in South Asian theatre. “What makes the story remarkably powerful is its universality and its ability to inspire children as well as adults across cultures. I’m from India, not from Bangladesh, and I’m very particular about reflecting Bangladeshi culture and creating the world of Bangladesh. As a director of Indian descent, I take that responsibility very seriously.”
Rickshaw Girl is recommended for audience aged 6 and up. For information: www.bactheatre.org