My Gay Toronto - 416 Scene

Kawa Ada smashes genres and genders: from song and dance to exotic dancing


"I get to experiment with the full colour range of what a human being is," says Kawa Ada of his role as an enticing exotic dancer in Bombay Black. This production, part of Factory Theatre's Naked season, was originally conceived as an all-male version of Anosh Irani's highly eroticized mythic play. No stranger to crossing boundaries of race, gender and genre, Ada was intrigued but had one reservation, "I didn't want to take away a role from a woman. A woman of colour on top of it, The idea was disconcerting."

Discussions with director Peter Hinton, notorious for his subversion of sexual mores and standards, allayed Ada's fears. "The women in this play are so strong, so powerful, so vivid, such forces of nature. In India there is still rape, child sexual abuse, arranged marriages with the girls being as young as six months. And the gang rapes in the news that have been going on for so long. This is a way to talk about a patriarchal society, to make a statement about men taking responsibility. How are we culpable in a patriarchal world?"

Ada's role defies even the stereotypes of drag, gay appropriation or cross-gender casting. "I requested, and Peter was on board, that I wanted to play the role as a man and ask the audience to project a woman onto my frame. Not to play a woman or a caricature of a woman. There are times where the audience sees a young woman, a woman, a young boy . . ."

The plot of the highly poetic Bombay Black revolves around an exotic dancer, Ada, who is pimped by her mother, now played by Anusree Roy. A mysterious blind man requests the dancer's services and a series of dark secrets are revealed. "The visually-impaired man is big and broad," says Ada of the muscular and hunky Howard J Davis (The Wedding Singer). Ada is no slouch in the body beautiful department as audience's remember from his revealing role in Hackerlove but, "For this role I've lost a lot of weight and I haven't been to the gym in six months. I wanted my natural frame, I'm naturally small-framed, to be the canvas. So we're playing with body types as well."

Ada is also excited by the opportunity to choreograph the dancing. "It's Indian classical dance brought into a modern period and then I put my own spin on it. I totally miss doing musical theatre a lot." Ada's history - from fleeing the war in Afghanistan as a child, to launching his career on Broadway in Bombay Dreams - is as dramatic and varied as his resumé. When he earned a Dora Award, his acceptance speech included the victorious declamation. "Don't  let them tell you you're too gay, too brown, or too musical theatre." 

"In Canada there's a real split between musical theatre and straight - I hate that phrase, could we say non-musical? - theatre. When I came back from Shaw I was known as a song and dance man. I guess I can tell this now, I made up a fake resumé just so I could get auditions for leading man roles. To build a real career I had to be seen as an actor first." This prejudice baffles Ada as he sees singing and dancing as further tools in an actor's arsenal. As soon as he had proved himself, repeatedly, as dramatic or comedic leading man material, "All my musical theatre credits went back in my resumé"

Ada isn't sure why this stigma exists but he speculates that it might be because, "The musical is an American art form. There you're considered an actor who can also communicate through song and dance. We don't have the canon they do. We do have Anne of Green Gables . . . "

He also suspects that there is a more nefarious undertone to the lack of respect for musical theatre performers. "It's as if someone who can sing and dance can't possibly be straight. In the recent past I've witnessed so many gay actors who struggle to be seen as serious. That really disheartened me." Musicality, sexuality and race all factor in, "Sometimes brown is good, the flavour of the month. And then there's a euro-centric season and you wonder where all the roles went. We're dealing with real archaic conditioning."

Ada is a natural raconteur and he applies his opinions and intellect to a wide range of topics before returning to Bombay Black and what it means to be part of Factory Theatre's Naked season. "It's full of frightening and beautiful scenes, its distilled theatre. People are going to want to see what Peter has done with it. It defies expectations because Peter is a white gay man and the cast and crew are from every socio-ethnic background, bringing these Indian characters to life. Come with an open mind and be ready to be challenged."

Bombay Black runs until Sun, Dec 6 at Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst St.