A wise director once said, “Good theatre is art; great theatre is life.” It is the ultimate compliment to say that CanStage’s recent production of Sunil Kuruvilla’s Rice Boy encompassed both.
Rice Boy is the story of two worlds-the snowy chill of Kitchener in the winter of 1975 set against the exotic landscape of Kerela, India, six months earlier. It is also the story of two people and their search to find a point of connection amidst two cultures and the shared grief of past loss.
Tommy, a twelve-year-old boy born in Canada, travels to India with his immigrant father for the first time since his mother’s death on a similar vacation ten years ago. There, watching his new world from the branches of the trees he climbs, he befriends his cousin Tina, a young woman who sees the world from the ground due to paralysis in her legs. As Tommy’s father grapples with memories of his late wife and Tina’s parents try to prepare her for an arranged marriage, the cousins leave adult concerns behind and explore the world together, forming a unique bond that shatters when Tina disappears on her wedding day. At home in Canada six months later, Tommy struggles with questions of identity as he tries to discover for himself what it means to be Canadian.
Kuruvilla’s writing is like an expertly-crafted maze that holds the audience’s attention through every turn and diversion. He navigates both worlds with ease, switching between Canada and India with dream-like fluidity, imbuing both with gems of detail that bring the settings alive.
A brilliant ensemble cast helps weave the threads of Kurivilla’s tale into a silken web of life. U of T Drama grad Zaib Shaikh delivers an astonishingly realistic performance as Tommy, a character less than half the actor’s actual age. With childlike curiosity, Shaikh uncannily captures the chasm between childhood and adolescence. Imali Perera’s Tina is his match both in character and performance-silence to his exuberance, stillness to his wandering, and, with her character’s final decision, clarity to his confusion. While the entire cast deserves praise for bringing genuine emotion to Kuruvilla’s unique text, Zohra Segal’s performance as Granny must be singled out alongside Shaikh and Perera. The 91-year-old Bollywood film legend lends her character both wisdom and grace, working skilfully with the playwright’s storyteller style.
Rice Boy gives voice not only to Indo-Canadians or to immigrants and their first-generation Canadian children, but also to anyone who has ever asked the question “Who am I?” and longed for an answer. It is a play of remarkable power and truth that left me at a loss for words of praise upon meeting the playwright. As I gave up trying to find the right phrase and choked out an ineloquent “Thank you,” Kuruvilla smiled. “Thank you,” he responded.
In life as well as art, I think he understood.