Taking on the topics of sexual assault, posttraumatic stress disorder, and overpowering grief would be a heavy task for even the most seasoned playwright. Yet when she came to write her debut play, Pamela Sinha says she had no choice but to explore dark subject matter.
In Crash, a one-woman show, Sinha explores the psychological aftermath of a brutal rape, and the grief of losing a parent that brings the trauma back into focus. Reached at her home in Toronto, the actor and writer readily confesses that she had never planned to explore such uncomfortable subject matter. “It wasn’t a play I ever wanted to write, and it certainly wasn’t a play I ever imagined I would have to write,” she insists. “It’s a play I was compelled to write.”
Rather than use straightforward narrative, Crash tells the story of the nameless Girl in the third person—a dramatization of the dissociation that often accompanies trauma. The story unfolds in a nonlinear fashion, as Girl suffers a flashback of a brutal rape while at her father’s memorial service. Details of the crime slowly emerge, interspersed with scenes revealing how the attack disrupted not only Girl and her innocence, but her family relationships.
It’s harrowing territory for both performer and audience—more so when you learn that it comes from a deeply personal place. “I live with posttraumatic stress disorder,” Sinha reveals. “It’s a challenge to live with it for me and many, many, many people who suffer from it. It’s not the story of one woman, it’s the story of many, many of us who carry our suffering, who feel a sense of powerlessness, helplessness.”
Despite the horrific crime upon which the play hinges, Sinha, whose own father passed away six years ago, insists that it is not the central theme. “It’s not a rape play, it’s a play about a lot of things,” she asserts. More than anything, she says, the work is about the nature of grief. “At the memorial [service for her father] she [Girl] is hit with these images of unresolved and repressed memory.…In her mind, in her grieving, if she can grab hold onto the elusive memories, memories that have eluded her for this long, if she can maintain some sense of action over those things that she’s powerless against, then her father will come back. It doesn’t make any sense, but it makes sense for a lot of people who grieve.”
With Crash, she goes on, she didn’t want to write a play about trauma, but about its aftermath. “How does one live with what they’ve gone through, particularly when it’s beyond the realm of regular human experience?” she asks. “What is it to live with that thing that happened? There’s the thing that happened in those minutes or hours that you’re hostage to this crime, but where do you go after that? How does society respond to you after that? How does your family care for you in a way that is helpful to you? These are the things that we don’t talk about.”
Sinha, who prefers not to reveal the extent to which the play is autobiographical, doesn’t offer any answers. But she is finding that she is bringing comfort to those who are wrestling with those questions. She says she has received countless letters and phone calls from people who have been moved by the work, which won four prestigious Dora awards in Toronto (including outstanding new play) following its recent first run there.
“I say sometimes that things that are too big for life can fit in art in a way that they can’t in life,” she reflects. “There’s a tremendous sense of community that comes from one person speaking a truth.”