The fourth edition of Seven.11 Convenience Theatre—a grouping of seven "brown"-centric, 11-minute plays that all take place in a convenience store—is a mixed bag with a few flatfooted non-dramas amid the generally well-executed short pieces. Nearly all of the Kraine Theater's 99 seats were full, and the production—committed to producing shows by and about the South Asian, Asian-American, and, to a lesser extent, general minority experience—has just been extended due to popular demand. Perhaps it's not that theater is dead, just that audiences—even "typical" theatergoing audiences—are tried of the same old same old.
When Inspector Shankar Ladoo Prasad (Sean T. Krishnan), the magnifying glass-wielding detective in "Who Killed Mr. Naidu First?"—a musical whodunit featuring clever lyrics, and the evening's best production—burst into a lyrical rendition of a Bollywood tune, the audience roared with laughter and clapped with recognition. The Clue-inspired murder mystery pits local customers with names as evocative as Mrs. LotuslLeaf (Alicia Ying), Ms. Lychee Martini (Meetu Chilana), and Professor Pappadum (John Wu) against the detective, all of them wondering who did in the happy convenience-store owner (Andrew Guilarte).
As good as "Mr. Naidu" is, Desipina & Company, with its seemingly strong financial and audience support base, should be a bit more exacting in its search for enticing short plays. Regrettably, "Jaffna Mangoes" and "Homecoming," the evening's worst pieces, begin the show. In the former, the casting barely rises above the kind of stereotyping this production should be working to undermine, and the story, if it can be called that, lives up to its slice-of-life characterization so well that nothing interesting actually happens. Once Bill Caleo's "racist, angry white man" leaves the store, the three brown men (Krishnan, Guilarte, and Jerold E. Solomon) can go back to their kindhearted joking. The play should portray the relationships, struggles, and identities of these men without pitting them against a two-dimensional, motivation-less white scapegoat.
In "Homecoming," Tessa (Chilana), a shrill and utterly annoying young woman, happens upon an old flame working in a local convenience store. Her emotional outburst materializes out of thin air before we're finally told that she's coping with her father's recent death. Dean (Caleo) doesn't share her desire to rehash the past, or her lexicon of years-old tidbits. As we watch them emotionally wound each other in an all too common display of the private in a public space, we wonder why the convenience store conveniently stays customer-free for the duration of their fight. Of all the short plays, "Homecoming" fails to make the production's unifying location a believable setting for its action.
"Undone" is an underdeveloped tween drama about Fizza (Chilana), who is planning to run away from her parents' strict house and an enforced marriage. The plot twist of sorts—a past relationship between Fizza's buddy Jill (Alicia Ying) and the store clerk (John Wu)—almost works, but it ultimately gets drowned by a girl-power rant that should be more subtly handled. Similarly, the production's other musical, "Bombay Screams," showcases excellent singing by Guilarte, Caleo, Chilana, and Solomon, but the lyrics don't rise above Rent-style sermonizing about Gen X multi-culti angst. Both shows have potential but need further development to sharpen the characters and keep them from thematically predictable places.
The production's strongest shows, by far, are "Who Killed Mr. Naidu First?," "The Old New World," and "Kung Fu Hustle." Dude (Wu) and his advice-spitting wingman Bro (Solomon) steal the show in the jocular "Kung Fu Hustle," about a shy geek attempting to seduce a new girl with a black belt in karate (Ying) by lying about his martial arts skills. It's a recognizable and very pleasing get-the-girl story that, aside from being snappily written and well acted, lets the characters exist in terms that contain, but are ultimately larger than, their racial identities.
"The Old New World" is a futuristic look at the race to annex the unoccupied United States of America by the world's three superpowers: China, India, and Brazil. The plot, which ends with a satisfying twist that I won't spoil here, lightheartedly imagines the implications of a worldwide shift in economic and political power. The story's use of the convenience store, the site of a futuristic expedition, is imaginative, giving the actors material that seems to put their energy to good use.
Despite the production's artistic unevenness, Desipina & Company seems to understand something many larger, mainstream companies have yet to figure out: minority audiences are starving for theater that attempts to dramatize their stories. Such theater uses those audiences' cultural markers as points of reference and also casts a veritable rainbow of actors who act outside of the narrow sliver of roles we are used to seeing them play.
With its resounding level of support, Seven.11 Convenience Theatre will probably be around for several more years. In that time, it should not only continue promoting the dramatization of untold brown stories but also use its newly acquired cultural cachet to promote the very best in theater, regardless of color.