In ‘Brahman/i,’ the Comic Is a Real Stand-Up Guy… and Girl

Have you heard the one about the tectonic plates? Early in Quantum Theatre’s new play—which is staged as a nightclub comedy act—the comedian, an Indian-American named Brahman (played by Sanjiv Jhaveri), delivers a memorable riff on the subject. It’s a story of what can happen when colliding continental land masses have sex.

Other lessons in geography and history follow. There’s a visit to an ancient “sex temple” deep in central India—a temple that actually exists, as we learn when Brahman gleefully projects show-and-tell photo slides of the shockingly explicit sculptures that adorn the towering edifice. Later, the comedian acts out a mock BBC mini-documentary on Stonehenge. No photos are needed to make it clear that from an Indian viewpoint, this famous British erection is quite small.

Come in if you dare, says the laid-back stand-up hijra (Sanjiv Jhaveri), with musician David Bielewicz behind him.

Come into my world, says the hijra (Sanjiv Jhaveri, foreground), with musician David Bielewicz.

But the main attraction in Brahman/i: A One-Hijra Stand-Up Comedy Show is the comedian himself. And herself. “Hijra” is a Hindi word for an intersex person: someone with both male and female organs. Or as Brahman puts it, when he/she was born, the doctor told his/her parents that they had “an all-in-one.”

So, um, wow. Calling this an unusual play would be an understatement. Brahman/i is saturated with sex, yet it sure isn’t your conventional sex comedy. In fact, you might say it’s a comedy about the predicament of being unconventional.

Here is a character who straddles two cultures and embodies two sexes. Large parts of the comedian’s feature-length routine deal with what it’s like to grow up in the U.S. as the child of Indian immigrants. Nevertheless, Brahman also has plenty to say about certain other parts—namely, “what’s in my pants. My penis-slash-vagina.”

The leather-jacketed comic makes that blunt pronouncement just a few minutes into the play, to warn the audience how it’s going to be. Then, with a mischievous grin, Brahman adds a further warning: “And if you piss me off, I’ll expose myself. It’s the way of my people.”

On the Origins of the Species

Where did this play come from? The short answer is that it came from a woman. Playwright Aditi Brennan Kapil, who is of Indian-Bulgarian descent, grew up in Sweden and now lives in Minneapolis. She wrote Brahman/i as part of her “Displaced Hindu Gods Trilogy,” a series that premiered in Minneapolis in 2013. Each play in the trilogy invokes the spirit of a Hindu deity as it describes the experiences of Indians living in the West. Brahma, the deity our hero is named after, is the lord of creation.

Karla Boos, Quantum Theatre’s founder, quickly obtained rights to produce Brahman/i in Pittsburgh and engaged the Los Angeles-based theater artist Shishir Kurup to direct it. The play is presented here in a former church building that’s been converted—temporarily, and convincingly—into a comedy club with cabaret-style seating.

When you walk in, you feel exactly as you would in a regular stand-up comedy venue. There’s a bar at the back serving drinks and light refreshments while an MC (credited in the playbill as “Vinny V”) warms up the gathering crowd with a patter of semi-stale jokes.

Soon it’s time for the headliner. When Brahman takes the stage, accompanied by a musician and sound man (David Bielewicz), he comes across exactly like countless other comics you may have seen. (And we’ll stick with “he” for the present, since actor Jhaveri appears in male attire as Brahman.) This guy is bouncy, bright-eyed, and ebullient, spewing out a string of bah-da-bing one-liners and poking fun at various audience members as he settles into his shtick.

Even a friendly hijra gets snarly sometimes. This is Brahman cursing "the asshole" who invented pronouns.

Even a friendly hijra gets snarly sometimes. Here Brahman is cursing “the asshole” who invented pronouns.

Small wonder, then, that some folks in the audience might be taken by surprise. On the night I went, I talked afterward with a couple of people who had thought they were indeed attending a regular comedy show.

They figured a good bit of it was being ad-libbed and didn’t know it was a play carefully written for both comedic and dramatic effect. They thought Jhaveri was a real comedian who had lived what he was relating, or at least something close to it, and they were stunned by what began to transpire before them.

Nasty Puns and Cosmic References

Brahman opens with some stories about middle school. We learn, for instance, that the youthful all-in-one went to school masquerading as a boy—dressed as a boy, and hanging out with the boys—until the boys noticed that their buddy was starting to grow breasts. From that point, his/her name became a wicked pun. Now he was “Bra Man”—as in, this young man needs a bra! Ha ha, get the joke?

Of course it’s not funny at all. Even if you know you are watching a scripted play, vignettes like this (and there are many more to come) can leave you wondering how to react. Some are painful to the point of being agonizing. And yet Brahman is up there jauntily nattering away, pushing to coax out the laughs.

The play becomes ever more strange as Brahman weaves in his lengthy digressions, like the riff on the tectonic plates, which turns out to be truly funny as well as profound. Brahman repeats what he learned in middle school geography class: that the present continent of Asia was formed when India, once an island, collided and joined with the rest.

Then he asks, “India running into southern Asia? Best first date ever. Followed by worst marriage ever”—a situation that to a considerable extent prevails today, with the nation of India being socio-politically at odds with many of its neighboring countries and physically isolated (by the Himalayas) from some. Brahman hams up the story grandly. He punctuates the initial collision with sexual oohs and ahhs … and eventually tails into a spurned spouse’s lament, putting on his best homeboy-Indian accent to give us India complaining to the rest of Asia: “You seem so distant.

That’s great stuff. Brahman/i contains a lot more like it, in both the social-commentary digressions (“We Indians have a long history of worshiping the lunatics and the freakies”) and in the personal stories. The question is …

Yes, My Friends, the Question Is:

Do you have to be Indian, or intersex, to appreciate this play?

I don’t think so. Brahman/i is loaded with larger implications for everyone. In that sense, it’s like a musical that played in Pittsburgh last year and was recently revived on Broadway. The musical, Side Show, is about Siamese twins joined at the hip—a condition that very few of us have; yet we can get into the story because we all have a double nature.

So it is with Brahman/i. Very few of us are intersex, but we have multiple sexual dimensions. And we can relate to the emotions that Brahman brings out, from the brave laughing-at-ourselves to the cosmic despair voiced in passages like this one, which the comedian shares after telling of a youthful humiliation:

“I invoked the ancestors, as our people are wont to do when faced with uncomfortable social situations: ‘Brahma is the creator of the universe. This entire world is but a moment in Brahma’s dream. And when he wakes, it will all be over …’”

The one thing you’ve got to remember is that it’s okay not to be laughing all the time. Personally, I felt Brahman/i would’ve been funnier in a number of key places if the comedian’s intensity had varied more than it did. Jhaveri stayed pretty much in high-key mode, while Bielewicz’s mellow, deadpan turn as the sidekick provided some counterpoint.

Maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be; I talked to people who thought Jhaveri’s tone was just right. But the point is, nobody’s going to be laughing constantly because this is not a real comedy act. It’s a play set up as a comedy act. It’s a play; it’s a play; it’s not real.

Or is it?

If You’re Planning to Go …

Brahman/i: A One-Hijra Stand-Up Comedy Show runs through Feb. 22 at Quantum Theatre’s “Temple of Comedy,” 113 N. Pacific Ave., Garfield. For show times and tickets, visit Quantum or call 412-362-1713.

Photos by Heather Mull, courtesy of Quantum Theatre.

Mike Vargo is a Pittsburgh-based writer and editor who covers theater for Entertainment Central.