Sexts, lies, and videotape

Boom Arts' American premiere of "Free Outgoing," a contemporary play from India, explores the disruptive intersection of privacy and technology

It’s a shame we can’t Skype back in time and ask our ancestors in the Bronze Age or the agricultural revolution for some advice on how to navigate the heavy waters of technology. We ingenious humans have an uncanny ability to create things that make lives of their own, and we haven’t yet tempered our cleverness with the ability to negotiate the afterwards of our doing. An intense tug of war has been going on in the last few years between the objects we own and the ideas of privacy, community, and the law. Think of the Snowden affair, and now the Apple vs. FBI litigation.

The state of New Mexico just passed a law allowing teenagers to sext, if both parties consent. For the other 49 states, most of these messages fall under the crime of child pornography, although the sender and receiver may both be minors. In India, the stakes are just as high, and even higher, as the country’s economy and its more than a billion people and thousands of cultures speaking hundreds of official languages have become concentrated around the global tech industry. There’s an intense drive to sort out identity in an already diverse cultural landscape. But just as with the law in New Mexico, the important word at the heart of the matter is “consent”.

Don't you know it's all about the sext. Photo courtesy BoomArts.

Don’t you know it’s all about the sext. Photo courtesy BoomArts.

Free Outgoing is a moving play written by Chennai-based journalist Anupama Chandrasekhar, and the second play this year in Portland (with Mia Chung’s You for Me for You, at Portland Playhouse) to have been workshopped at the Royal Court Theatre in London. Free Outgoing, which had its American premiere over the weekend in a brief run by Boom Arts at the Lincoln Hall Studio Theater, has been critically acclaimed across the ocean. There’s a subtle imprint on Royal Court Theatre works: well-crafted, realistic dialogue that is fleshed out by quick, smart humor and an honor in capturing cultures with a critical, but respectful eye.

Free Outgoing tells the story of a young Tamil girl, Deepa, who is under an enormous amount of pressure by her mother, brother and society at large to do well in school. While given the opportunities of an education, physically and emotionally she is kept in the reins. This conflict of values explodes, and Deepa’s self-exploration pulls the family into a downward spiral.

Chennai, where the play is set, is the capital of the South and a city with a conservative reputation. Deepa; her mother, Malini; and brother, Sharan, live in a flat where daily lorries bring in rations of water. Deepa has been hiding her relationship with a boy, and one day at school he films a sex scene with Deepa on his cell phone. He emails it to some friends, and after a while it hits the Internet. All of the play is staged inside the family’s flat, but Chandrasekhar’s script, performed by a well-seasoned cast, brings all the pressures of life on a thin wire as the world outside starts closing in.

Malini (Anna Khaja) is a single mother who works at an office and sells products on the side to keep a roof over the family’s head and pay for the children’s private school. Malini is a soft whisper of a woman on the outside; she’s got class and would never impose her struggles on anyone. Caught up in the daily tasks of work and running a home, she’s lost sight of the changes taking place with her son and daughter. Malini is still living in the past, making the same plans she made when her husband was alive.

Missing onstage are Deepa and her father. They cast a long shadow on the story, and since we can’t visually judge the dead or the hidden, all of our opinions and insights into these two main characters come from the world we can see. Once we take a photo, video, write a word, and send it out onto the Internet, we can’t take it back. The ghost is always there. It can be bought, sold, edited, revised, reimagined, deconstructed: the détournement is infinite. The response is anonymous, with a buffer in between that buffer. The Internet has amplified the speech of coarse purposeless hate; public opinion turns into an inhumane free market that can destroy lives. The missing presence of Deepa and her father, and our reaction to their lives, become a copy of the viral phenomenon.

Malini, who’s been working at a relentless pace to care for her children, has little or no social support. The one friend she has, a co-worker, Ramesh (Anil Kumar), has a crush on her. His attention may not be altruistic, but Malini’s dependence on him as her only connection to the public falls in the same way. If we rigidly orchestrate our lives, in the hope that we can plan to evade the hard times, a wicked web may be drawn around the best of our intentions. It’s in these understandings that Chandrasekhar’s play patiently illustrates the complexities of single motherhood. Kumar’s Ramesh is a handsome, if a little worn from loneliness, sometimes stand-up guy. As emotions run higher and higher, Khaja and Kumar act the delicate dance of being well-mannered and outraged at the unacceptable. It’s like watching through a living room window, with the occupants unaware.

Free Outgoing played for four days in its national premiere in Portland. Its next stop is Los Angeles. Boom Arts has been working with actors, directors and playhouses along the West Coast to collaborate with and bring to more stages work that fits its mission: provocative, global, and relevant.

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