My Gay Toronto - MGT Stage

Bombay Black: the erotic power of revenge and the fluidity of gender

by Drew Rowsome - Photos by Joseph Michael Photography

If Bombay Black were performed with southern accents, it could easily be passed off as a long lost masterpiece by Tennessee Williams. Kawa Ada strikes an erotic defiant pose and the play descends, flowing on a cascade of poetry, into the beauty of depravity, the seductive power of revenge. 

The stage is bare except for a circular rug, bowls of water and three dynamic performers. Make that four dynamic performers: the lighting designed by Jennifer Lennon becomes a fourth character, highlighting, probing and interacting. It may be a simple naked set but Bombay Black is visually mesmerizing.

Part of the visual appeal is Kawa Ada who plays an exotic dancer, hobbled by anklets of bells and a dark past. Even when still, every muscle is taut and arranged, waiting to explode into arousing motion, always aware of being watched, the object of desire. Ada is referred to as "she" or "daughter" and the character's name, Aspara, is a mythological reference to a "celestial nymph" or, in another character's description, a lotus flower. Aspara flows between male, female, gay and fey, to create an ambiguous gender and sexuality that adds an extra frisson of heat to the seductions and horror to the sexual violence. It is stylized unadorned drag.

Aspara is pimped out by her mother who insists she has daughter's interests, and her daughter's art, at heart, but could easily be persuaded to sell anything for a price. Anusree Roy digs into the part and creates a sacred monster who is tough as nails, comically contradictory, and as vulnerable as she is terrifying. It is a great naturalistic performance. 

Unlike this production's conception of Aspara, there is no sexual ambiguity with Roy. This is a living breathing woman who has been wronged by the world and will exact her revenge. As magnificent as Roy is, it is hard not to wonder what this production of Bombay Black would have been like if it had been the all-male version originally planned. The role of the mother is, as written, a diva role and in the hands of a Charles Ludlam, a David Benjamin Tomlinson or a Frank Blocker, the gender and camp elements would have transcended the script's tragic trajectory and balanced Ada's work.

Howard J Davis is the mysterious blind man who pays to be present when Aspara dances. Davis has startlingly vivid eyes that reach across the footlights and somehow manage to convey emotion while maintaining an unseeing gaze. When he begs to have the world described to him, the wonder on his face is contagious, and his muscular frame and child-like innocence make Aspara's toxic combination of desire and fear frighteningly real.

As hypnotic as the performances and staging are, playwright Anosh Irani piles on a few metaphors and horrific events too many. Bombay Black attempts to soar into a southern Gothic-flavoured fever dream but is hampered by plot contrivances and an unrelenting nihilism. Moments and the cast, glitter like illuminated jewels in a stark black box, but the final effect is bleak. When Roy toys with ashes or conjures taloned eagles from the sky, when Davis stumbles with lithe grace, when Ada dances or bathes in knives of lights, Bombay Black hits the poetic heights it aims for. Many of the images and themes lodge in the brain, some of them connect with the heart.

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