Anusree Roy's Brothel #9 conveys hope and horror

The women behind this important play about sex slavery discuss its draw despite its dark subject matter

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      Adele Noronha remembers the first time she read Anusree Roy’s award-winning play Brothel #9. She was searching for a monologue in 2011, shortly after the play opened to rave reviews in Toronto, and just after Noronha graduated. Set in Calcutta (now known as Kolkata), the play follows a young woman, Rekha, who mistakenly thinks she’s moving to the city for a new job. In fact, her brother-in-law has sold her into sex slavery. It’s heavy, traumatic subject matter, but it wasn’t just the intense human horror that sucked Noronha in and made her keep reading. Rather, she related to the small glimmer of hope radiating from Roy’s words.

      “It reminded me of a trip I’d taken just a couple years before to south India, where I’d worked with street and slum youth,” Noronha says. “I was really devastated by that trip. It was just really heartbreaking to realize those kids—the circumstantial darkness that they lived in, but also the immense capacity for joy that they had. When I read this play I found that it really spoke to that, about this country I loved, and mixed horror and delight and joy in it. I read it and felt amazing, because it was a South Asian–Canadian woman. She was an immigrant. I just went, ‘This makes me feel good inside. I’m glad she exists.’ ”

      Five years later, Noronha is set to star as Rekha in Brothel #9 opposite Laara Sadiq. It’s a monumental show for a number of reasons: it’s the play’s first staging since its celebrated debut; it’s part of Diwali Fest; and it’s also director Katrina Dunn’s final production with Touchstone Theatre, after 19 years as its artistic director. Dunn wanted to do something special for her last show, so she put a call out to female playwrights across the country and asked them to send her plays that they felt had been overlooked or had been produced once and never again. Roy’s Brothel #9 grabbed her.

      Adele Noronha (left) and Laara Sadiq star in Brothel #9.
      Emily Cooper

      “It was really because of the incredible craft of the writing,” Dunn says. “Her skill at shaping scenes, characters, and dramatic arcs—her daring is just remarkable.”

      In its original run, Roy herself played Jamuna, the older sex slave whose complicated relationship with Rekha is at the heart of Brothel #9. Sadiq is good friends with Roy, and she too was struck by the script’s nuances.

      “I don’t know a woman on the planet who has not or will not at some point in her life experience some sort of brutality, intimidation, or violation on various levels by a man,” Sadiq says. “It’s the reality of the world, regretfully. You learn to push through. Not to ignore it, not to say that it’s okay, but we survive that day-to-day experience. We survive that through humour, perseverance, loving the people around us, pulling our ranks close. Through supporting each other… What I want to teach my daughter is, ‘Yes, we do survive, and yes, there’s ugliness in the world, but the world isn’t an ugly place.’”

      The world also becomes a much safer, kinder place, hopefully, when one doesn’t turn one’s back on human atrocities. Dunn says that she often works on plays with dark subject matter, and is routinely asked how she can do it.

      “I’m like, ‘Are you kidding? It’s an honour, it’s a privilege,’” Dunn adds. “To be able to run this experience through our nervous systems every day expands our ability to feel, and feel for more people.”

      But that’s just one aspect of why Dunn chose Brothel #9 to cap off this part of her legacy.

      “I have tried—with some success, I think—to forward women playwrights while at Touchstone,” Dunn says. “So many Canadian plays get their premiere, may even be very successful in their premiere, and never get another production. And that is the case with this play. In 2011, this had a stellar run, won numerous awards, and has never been produced again.”

      Well, until now. Noronha still can’t quite believe it’s happening, and she’s still grappling with being a part of such a vital moment.

      “It’ll be five years out of school this December for me, and as I was coming up, people went, ‘Do you know Laara Sadiq? Do you know Anusree Roy? Do you know Pamela Sinha?’” Noronha recalls with a smile. “This is a nerdy thing, but Anusree’s picture sits on the corner of my desk. She’s playing this street child from Calcutta, and the reason she exists there, before I’d ever met her or got into this play or anything, was because knowing she existed meant that I could. I am not of the first generation that broke open those doors and, like, they did that work, and in order for us to continue, we need to be connecting with each other so we can start building up. The dissemination of work is so fucking important, we need to be getting to corners where there’s people who don’t have access. Outside the city centres where we all appreciate, like, hoity-toity theatre, because people will come and contribute, and they will feel like they belong. I really need that. I need that to keep going, personally, so it means a lot to me.”

      Brothel #9 is at the Cultch's Vancity Culture Lab from November 17 to 27.