August: Osage County: A very strange dramatic experience

… whoa.

I had a very strange Sunday afternoon.

I went to see the last performance of August: Osage County, an award-winning play that’s disturbingly intense and at times sharply funny. The play is long and twisted and increasingly deranged, and is full of people who are, essentially, assholes. There’s an incredible amount of swearing. There’s some violence. A minor is almost sexually assaulted.

And yet the strangest thing about this is that the entire cast was Indian. Not American Indian — Indian-Indian.

This is an intensely American play, in a number of ways. The cast names and characters and their interactions, even the location of the action, in Kentucky. The live-in help who is hired is an “Indian”. The turns of phrases are Southern.

And yet! The accents of nearly every person on the cast were deeply Indian. Every time they referred to the hired help as an “Indian” was jarring. And the near-constant swearing was genuinely shocking.

After a while the strangeness of the accents became a low background hum, secondary to the madness of the plot and the characters. But it got me thinking about my own reaction to the Indian cast. It wasn’t so much the swearing as the fact that it was Indians, people possibly from my own community or very much like it, who were doing the swearing. Actually, I think it was the fact that they were swearing in English.

I’m not sure what was happening with the accents. There was no attempt to synchronize them, though the accent of the 14-year-old was believably American. Everything else was on a varying spectrum of Indian.

There is, of course, no rule that says that a South Asian acting troupe should stick to South Asian themes. It’s easy enough to say that the production and acting were what should have made the play — and the acting was visceral, amazing — but I have one question.

Why this play

August has a high shock value and it’s a challenge to act and produce. It’s also a play without a happy ending, a play in which few characters will ever redeem themselves.

What part of this play was meant to resonate with its audience? Or maybe it wasn’t. Perhaps the whole point of staging August was to remind us that life is just needlessly cruel sometimes.

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