Chicago theatre companies Silk Road Rising and Remy Bumppo Theatre Company are teaming up for the American premiere of Tanika Gupta’s Great Expectations. In this adaptation of Charles Dickens’s beloved 1861 novel, the setting is moved to Calcutta, where Pip, an Indian boy of a low caste, gains a patron who sets him on the path to becoming a barrister of the British Empire. The play will run at Silk Road Rising’s home at Pierce Hall in the Historic Chicago Temple Building from May 11 to July 2, 2017.
Tanika Gupta: Playwright-Historian
Gupta, who is a renowned playwright and television writer in the United Kingdom, often uses her work to tackle colonialism’s legacy of cultural mixing and clashes. Her 2005 docudrama Gladiator Games depicted the investigation of the murder of a young Asian prisoner by his white supremacist cellmate in an incident which was seen in Britain as indicative of the prison system’s failure to protect minorities. In 2012, her adaption of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House as the story of an interracial couple played on the BBC’s radio station and The Empress, a historical play about Indian life in nineteenth-century Britain, was performed at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in 2013. This summer, her new play, Lions and Tigers, which depicts her great uncle’s participation in the Indian independence movement, will debut at Shakespeare’s Globe. But despite being regularly performed on Britain’s largest stages, Gupta’s examinations of the British Empire’s legacy have rarely been seen in the United States. Until now.
Great Expectations debuted in 2010 at the Palace Theatre in the West End and allowed Gupta to explore the contradictory nature of British education in colonial India. When interviewed for this article, the History grad from Oxford University said:
“I am very interested in the idea of revisiting the past, and of writing about how diverse our communities were from, for example, the nineteenth century. Perhaps it's different in the U.S with the legacy of slavery, but certainly in Britain, with the legacy of empire and trade, there were Indians and Africans living cheek by jowl with white English people going back centuries. For me it is about trying to redress the balance. So often history is ‘white washed,’ immigrants are seen as recent phenomena and our common history is ignored.”
Exploring Parallels Between Class, Caste, and Color
Following the 1857 uprising and the reorganization of Britain’s Indian holdings as the British Raj, the British intended to use educated Indians as their middlemen for running their empire. Their justification was that they were preparing the Indians for self-government. Picking up on Dickens’s exploration of the class system, Gupta’s adaptation dramatizes Pip’s aspiration to become a gentleman by British standards and his resulting guilt and confusion. He is manipulated by several figures from other cultures whom he is unable to determine whether are friend or foe, including the wealthy English shut-in Miss Havisham, her half-Indian, half-African teenaged ward, Estella, and the escaped African convict Magwich.
Regarding her changes to the races of several characters, Gupta says, “It wasn't so much about major reworking, more re-imagining. I love the character of Magwich, and always have since a child. He is a man much sinned against. A vagrant, orphan, recidivist who is branded from an early age as a dangerous convict, he tries to pick himself up, change his life, only to be brought down again by the evil Compeyson. I liked the idea of setting the play in India and making Magwich African. In India, there were many Africans who were either freed slaves working on ships or escaping slavery. There is still an African community living in the subcontinent today, known as Siddhi.”
May is Asian-Pacific Heritage Month
Directing the play are Silk Road Rising artistic associate Lavina Jadhwani and Remy Bumppo Theatre Company’s English-born Artistic Director, Nick Sandys. The fusion of Silk Road Rising’s advocacy for Asian stories and Remy Bumppo’s text-centric performance practices complements the cultural exchange Gupta explores.
May is Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month. The play production comes on the heels of a recent wave of hate crimes against Indians, attempted travel bans, and the White House blaming violence on immigrants. Many Americans of South Asian and Middle-Eastern descent are especially conscious of how they must navigate their own cultural identities while pursuing what they hope will be a better life. Indians are also one of the fastest-growing populations in the United States, and their expanding presence is making stories about their experience with British colonialism relevant to the American story.
Gupta says that Great Expectations will speak to American and immigrant audiences because it is “essentially a Dickens classic with themes and storylines which resonate through the decades for all cultures and societies. Rags to riches, the demonization of prisoners and convicts, jilted love, a young poor boy’s dreams to make it big in the world.”
Great Expectations will run at Silk Road Rising at 77 W. Washington St. Chicago, IL
Performances are Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 4:00 pm and 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 4:00 pm from May 11 through July 2.
For a complete performance schedule or to purchase tickets, visit www.GreatExpectationsPlay.org or call the Silk Road Rising box office at 312-857-1234 extension 201.
About the Author
Jacob Davis is a freelance writer and dramaturge. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Theatre, where he specialized in the history of dramatic literature and interned as a dramaturge for Dance Heginbotham. His professional work includes developing new performance pieces such as The Blues Ain’t a Color. Since moving to Chicago in 2014 he has reviewed theatre, written articles, and conducted interviews for a number of websites.