Minita Gandhi is a force. An actress, playwright and writer who was born in Mumbai, India and raised in California, Gandhi has been living and working in Chicago since getting her first acting job with the Silk Road Rising theater nearly a decade ago.
On television, Gandhi’s credits include the recurring role of Dr. Prospere on NBC’s Chicago Fire, Mussarat in Brown Girls, among many others. She is a Master Instructor for Pinnacle Performance Company, where she spent 2016 developing a Women’s Leadership Program, and the co-creator of the Professional Mentorship Program for Women in the Arts with the Statera Foundation.
For the last year and a half, Gandhi has been working on Muthaland, a one-woman show she wrote and stars in about her life. In the play, which makes its world premiere at the 16th Street Theater in Berwyn August 31, Gandhi plays 11 characters, including herself and her younger self, her parents and siblings, and a doctor who assaulted her.
The Chicago Ambassador was able to read the script of the upcoming show, and can confidently say that it is powerful and has a message that transcends nationality, race, and sex. Without giving spoilers, it’s a story about the search for home and although it does contain an assault, that is a small (yet vital) part of a larger story.
The Chicago Ambassador recently chatted with Gandhi in Chicago about her show, her motivation behind it, and what she think her parents will think once they finally see it in person. (Thus far, only her parents have only seen a workshop performance of it on video *you can see her father’s reaction in the Emmy award winning documentary My Muthaland, published by The Atlantic online).
CA) What inspired you to write and perform Muthaland?
GANDHI) I think I had a story that I had to tell. For a long time I couldn’t write about what happened because of the assault. And then after I wrote a 15-minute story for a live lit show, that’s when I first wrote about the assault… once that was done there was a wind running through my body. I knew I could write the rest of it. The people at first theater I ever worked at when I moved to Chicago, Jamil Khoury and Malik Gilani of Silk Road Rising, had become friends and mentors. They took me out to dinner and said ‘We heard you wrote this short story…’ I said yes and they wanted me to tell them more about it. I did, and they asked if I wanted to write. They offered me a creative team, two table reads and four public performances. I said yes, although I had no idea what that entailed. That’s how I wrote the play and I want to share that because I realize that it’s a unicorn of a story — that I had a wonderful theater company come to me and say that wanted to support me. They took a huge risk on me, a no-name playwright. I like to share that because I think that we have to take those risks, especially in the arts. If you look at the theater, historically it’s very white and very male. We need more voices and cultures represented. So their generosity just really caught me off-guard. But I wrote the play and the workshops went really well.
I’m excited because my parents have never seen the show live.
CA) Oh wow. Have they read it?
GANDHI) They haven’t read it but there’s a 20-minute documentary that The Atlantic did about the show. It came about after Silk Road. One of my colleagues saw the show with a young woman who was attending the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern. And a few of her peers in the program were working on a documentary for their thesis project. She mentioned me and I told them I would be happy to be part of their project. Originally it was supposed to be about 5 up and coming artists in the cityI was getting ready to do Muthaland for the Ignition Festival of New Works at Victory Gardens. They came to a couple rehearsals, interviewed me, and then asked how I would feel if they just focused on my story. So the focus shifted to more of an autobiographical story about the impact of telling my real stories had on myself and my family. If you watch it you’ll see my dad see the show for the first time on video. He watched it on my couch while I was sitting next to him and it was really intense. In the show I talk about the first time I saw a penis and I’m thinking ‘Oh my God, is he going to kill me?’ but he was really cool about that stuff. Then when the assault came, that’s when I got off the couch because I couldn’t watch that part with him. But his response afterwards was really profound. My dad’s not really a cryer, but he was really effected by it.
CA) He knew that happened to you?
GANDHI) Yeah. He helped me quite a bit. He’s amazing and I’m so proud of how he has handled all of this.
CA) What led you to Chicago?
GANDHI) I did a show at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater and then flew back to California. Then I got an understudy offer for a show called Merchant on Venice in Chicago, which was an adaptation of Merchant of Venice. I remember thinking that I had a free place to stay in Burbank with a dear friend but thought ‘No, I’ll just go do the show.’ I wanted to be around the script. I was really drawn to it. So I had two suitcases and my laptop, no winter clothes because I wasn’t thinking that I was going to stay here. I did the show and I got an agent, I got another show…and a lot of my friends in LA and New York weren’t necessarily working on what they went out there to do. So I thought, ‘I’m working.’ It wasn’t the planned or practical choice. I had no money. My family was in California. And I came to Chicago not knowing one person. But I’ve built my entire professional career in Chicago. And if I was in another city I don’t know if I would have come back to writing.
CA) What do you like more, writing or performing?
GANDHI) They are different. I love acting and I love performing. I love storytelling so anything under the umbrella of storytelling I love. I just think stories are profound, your ability to heal, to offer emotional connections. Have you seen Homecoming King by Hassan Minaj?
CA) No, I haven’t.
GANDHI) Oh my God, it’s amazing. His stand up comedy, I think the reason that it’s hitting people so hard is that he tells stories in really funny ways but they also have deep meaning. It’s so rich and poignant. The people he talks about in his life are not caricatures, they are real. I think that’s so attractive. That’s the kind of work I strive to do.
CA) I was interviewing someone the other day and we started talking about how not everything is black and white. She was talking about her father who wasn’t such a great guy all the time and she said ‘you can still love the monster.’ I thought it was great point because it’s not like he was all bad, no one is. Or all good.
GANDHI) When the quote-unquote villains of the show are so complicated that we as an audience have a little bit of compassion for them. That’s when you know the writer and the actor did it right. Those are the best villains.
CA) I’m not a big action fan, but I remember that TV show The Shield. Vic Mackey was a bad guy, but you liked him.
GANDHI) That’s it! People are so complicated. We all have everything in us all the time.
CA) There are a lot of questions I am not going to ask because I don’t want to spoil the show for the readers of this.
GANDHI) Oh, I appreciate that. It’s hard to do interviews because I always wonder if everyone is going to know the whole show before they see it.
CA) I know. When I go see something I try not to read too much of anything about it.
GANDHI) Yeah. I love not knowing anything. It allows for a true experience. That’s my worst fear, that people come and won’t allow themselves to have a true experience. That’s a challenge now that the documentary is out. And my interview with NPR was wonderful as well, but a lot of people know about the assault. But I think the show is 85 percent a comedy, I think a lot of it is really funny and it’s meant to be that way.
CA) Yes, there was some stuff that was really funny — the scene with the vibrator. [laughter] You infuse great comedy in this, referencing the 5 blind men and the elephant. You say, “we seemed to share an absolute truth about some things. Other times I’m sure I was seeing the elephant’s ear and Dad’s head was stuck up the elephant’s asshole.”
In the play after you are assaulted, the character of your mother shares a story about what happened to her with you and offers advice. Some who see the show may not like it, but I think both your parents were very empathetic.
GANDHI) They are. And as parents you do the best that you can. You parent off of the knowledge and experience you have. Her generation of women from India deal with things differently. But it’s not as if I’ve never caught myself supporting the culture of silence I strive so hard to shatter. During the first table read, it was around the same time that the BBC Documentary India’s Daughter was coming out, which was about a terrible gang rape that happened in 2012 in India. The Indian government banned it from being shown in India as they thought it would ‘defame’ the country. I had a very visceral response to that. During the table read, I had a very difficult time because there were questions coming up that showed maybe some things were missing from the evolution of my own story. I realized that maybe I had self-censored. I hadn’t addressed the assault in detail because I some part of me was victim shaming myself with thoughts like ‘that happened, you’re a bad person’ or ‘this thing happened to me and I can’t talk about it because maybe my family or others will look at me differently.’ I realized that being able to have a conversation about it but not allowing it to be your whole life is important. I needed to speak out for myself and others like my mother.
CA) I was just going to say – it happened and it’s a huge thing but it doesn’t define you.
GANDHI) Exactly. Sometimes it’s really easy for people to say it’s a story about an assault but it’s really not about that at all.
CA) I wouldn’t say that.
GANDHI) After reading it what would you say it’s about?
CA) It’s a universal story. It’s about being a stranger in the land where you were born and a stranger in the place you live. I think that’s a big part of it. It’s an immigrant story that many can relate to. A lot of it was about the concept of home. Without ruing it, I will say I loved the ending.
GANDHI) That took a long time to figure out. I thought nothing was going to be harder to write than the beginning but that was the hardest. I figured it out during the workshops at Victory Gardens.
CA) In the show, you tell the parable of the five blind man and the elephant. Each man describes the elephant and each man thinks the others description is incorrect because it doesn’t match their experience of the truth. But, in fact they are all correct. I thought that was really relevant to a lot that’s going on right now.
GANDHI) I’m really happy that you picked up on that. Some people ask me why I wrote the play as a solo piece instead of a regular play with multiple actors and I think the idea of pluralism is something is something I was really interested in and something I was trying to understand spiritually. When you play multiple characters you have to love every character you play and you have to understand their viewpoint. I had to see my own mistakes and embrace them.I had to understand my parents and where they came from at times I disagreed with them. I had to love every character I played including the man who assaulted me. Even though that’s a short part of the script it was tough. I had already gone through a lot of work to heal from the assault so I was ready to tell that part of my story. But the process of this play has taught me so much about people. The idea that everything is in all of us. I don’t think what he did was right and I can’t justify it but it was interesting to play someone and understand how they get to that.
Muthaland has been extended and now runs through October 21 at the 16th Street Theater in Berwyn. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.