2020 was a rock thrown into the pond of all our lives, and the ripples are still being felt and will be for years to come. In that time of pandemic and social upheaval, many people experienced life-changing awakenings.
One such was Portland multi-faceted theater artist Ajai Tripathi, who discovered a gift for the written word. Three years and some change later, that discovery has led to the first mainstage production of Great White Gets Off, a script that Tripathi began in those dreary days of isolation that were the heart of the pandemic.It opens Thursday, Dec. 7, at Fuse Theatre Ensemble.
Great White Gets Off, in the words of Fuse’s website, “focuses on a single night between Snakecharmer and Great White, two men who meet on a hook-up app. Looking for some fun, they embrace their dom/sub tendencies and start into roleplay, but what starts as tantalizing fun leads them into rocky ground as real life racial inequities seep into each scene they attempt to explore.”
It’s intensely personal subject matter, laced with political and cultural questions that have hammered away at our society the past couple of years, if not longer. Those questions, as live and crackling as they are in our national discourse, have less visible but no less palpable ramifications on the personal relationships between individuals. “Is it possible,” asks Tripathi, “to find love that exists outside of the systemic power dynamic that we all live in?”
It’s not an easy question to ask, let alone to answer. Tripathi chooses not to answer the question with any sort of moral mandate, but rather to explore it with emotional authenticity.
Ajai Tripathi, an Oregon native, hails from Corvallis, where he also received his bachelor’s degree in theater from Oregon State University. Afterwards he moved to Portland, met his husband, Mark, and has four stepkids with him (who are all adults now). Tripathi, who is of Indian-Mexican American heritage, worked for a decade at Milagro Theatre, running the touring company there and functioning as the education director. While there, Tripathi’s first forays into writing began with writing plays for children. He got an MFA in screenwriting from the Maharishi International University, David Lynch School of Dramatic Arts.
In 2020, Tripathi signed up for Profile Theatre’s Community Profile program, which I was running at the time. Community Profile identifies a population or demographic that is a particular focus of one of the playwrights the company is exploring in a given season. The playwright was Paula Vogel, and we were working with the LGBTQ community. Tripathi remembers working with one of the playwrights from Profile’s current season, Christopher Oscar Peña.
“The prompt was something like, ‘Nothing will ever be the same again,’” Trapathi remembers, “and this crazy monologue came out about sleeping with your oppressor in whatever form that took. It was about the tension that exists when you have sexual attraction towards someone that you associate with an oppressor.”
I remember at the time being struck by the poetry and emotional complexity of Tripathi’s prose. He doesn’t shy away from hard truths, but he’s not reckless in how he confronts them, and has a lyrical tilt to his writing that never feels forced.
This is the initial monologue that Tripathi wrote in that class, shared with his permission:
“Snakecharmer: You need to hear this? You need to see this? What do you love? What do you crave? Rage? You want to feast on my rage? See my teeth? Never have I seen a people so proud and afraid of their skin. You’ve got to preserve that purity. That integrity. Bloodless. What do you want? Throw a harness around me? Great White’s taming the beast. Turning chaos to order. You have faced the beast’s maw, grabbed the savage bull by the horns. But all you were cultivating was rage. Now, you want me to give it back to you. I’ll sell it to you piece by piece. What do you think it will give you? Atonement? I ain’t a priest. I am Brahma. Looks closely and you’ll see your ancestors in my teeth. There is no salvation for you, I want you to be hollowed out. I want you to stay up and wonder if you’re still human after all. Welcome to my world, Great White.”
This was the seed planted three years ago that has since blossomed into Great White Gets Off. “The following prompt was to write a response to it,” he says, “From those two monologues came two characters. And they were really interesting to me. I took the Indian part of myself and that became Snakecharmer. Then I thought, ‘Well, what if he’s sleeping with a white guy and they’re trying to negotiate an understanding between each other where they are sexually attracted to each other through power, yet there is an undercurrent of love in their relationship?’”
Great White Gets Off, then, walks in the steps of a long tradition of American art that deals with the sexual and power dynamics between races, a topic that holds endless fascination for us. The fact that the relationship in the play is also a queer one only ups the emotional stakes and political volatility. “This play is about identity, because it’s something I’ve been dealing with. I’m in that ABCD line of thought.”
ABCD stands for American Born Confused Desi, and refers informally to “South Asian Americans particularly of Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin, born or raised in the United States, in contrast to those who were born overseas and later settled in the U.S.” The term is unique to that community, but the conundrum is recognizable to many communities of immigrants or descendants of immigrants, and other communities that are marginalized or find themselves in some way outside the societal norm.
“I’m also queer,” says Tripathi, which, to his mind, adds yet another layer or layers to the complexities of his personhood. “Confused because we’ve been dropped into a culture that is not my own even though it is my own. And being foreign to the culture that you came from – which is also not your own but it is your own. So you have to make up your own culture and life and rules.”
In the current social climate, any art that covers this much ground can be a long step to take into the political-sexual minefield. “It is scary,” says Tripathi. “It feels really vulnerable. I take comfort that there are others out there that can identify. I did a reading of it that James Dixon directed and they said that they could identify with it, too. Other people, as well, talked to me and said, “Oh yeah, I understand that.”
The idea is that Great White Gets Off doesn’t have resonance only for people of color who find themselves in that situation, but also for their white counterparts. At least, that’s what Tripathi hopes. “There’s always this feeling of, ‘Hmmm … does this person really get it?” he says. “Do they really understand where you’re coming from?’ And the answer is sometimes maybe yes and sometimes maybe not. The hope is that in an ideal situation we just see a person’s soul, their essence. But we still live in the world. We’re still of flesh. We still have history. But where it could go wrong is getting into generalizations, getting into types, getting into fetishizing, exoticizing – which could easily get to a dehumanizing level. But is it possible to transcend that?”
Of course, the seedling paragraph that Tripathi wrote three years ago is different now. The speech, the characters, the play have evolved since then, and Tripathi is especially pleased with his collaborators, specifically Rusty Tennant, the director of the play and Fuse Ensemble’s artistic director, and Patrick Hilton, who plays Great White. “Total trust,” says Tripathi. “Rusty’s one of those people who’s very knowledgeable about every aspect of theater, and Patrick’s amazing, and I’m really grateful that they’re joining along on the journey with me.”
Tripathi himself is playing Snakecharmer. “The thing about acting in a play that you wrote is that you know your weak points. You know where you’re most vulnerable. You know what can sting the most and what’s most difficult for you as an actor to portray. Yet you know, as a writer, that’s where you need to go. You know you need to go as deep as you can otherwise it’s not really worth doing. It’s a little bit like when you’re having a battle with your clone. You would know all your own weak points and your vulnerabilities.”
Great White Gets Off also has a sequel which Fuse is producing in February 2024, Great White Gives It Up, which will follow the further adventures of Snakecharmer and Great White (now simply Sandeep and Bert) as they travel to Dublin. “It’s the same idea where human beings are taking on the whole of history and the culture that they represent within them. That’s the sequel. It gets a little bit deeper into what interracial relationships can entail. Whereas this one is more about physical lust and physical attraction and a lot of sex.”
Tripathi’s husband, who is white, asked to read the script before he goes to see it. “I say, it’s not us, it’s not our autobiography,” Tripathi laughs, “it’s not me and him. But there might be some moments of familiarity.”
Great White Gets Off is a pandemic play in that it was written during the pandemic and is focused on a concern that was brought into high relief in that troubled time. “It takes place in the time period in which it was written, which is June of 2020,” says Tripathi, “so going back to that time of COVID and isolation. The thought of meeting a stranger during that time, feeling very, very isolated from one another, feeling all of the things that are going on with the racial reckoning in the country, the terrible leadership we had from the president. All of this real anger in the world. It seemed like there was very little human connection happening. So the play is a plea for human connection and finding connection.”
- Where: Fuse Theatre Ensemble, at The Back Dooor Theater, behind Common Grounds Coffeehouse, 4319 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd., Portland
- Opens: Thursday, Dec. 7
- Continues: Thursdays-Sundays through Dec. 23, plus Wednesday, Dec. 20