The life of a young woman is forever changed on a trip to India where she unearths family secrets, encounters a prophet, and ultimately discovers her voice within a culture of silence. This forms the premise of Indian American actress/playwright writer Minita Gandhi’s one-woman show, “Muthaland,” in which the familiar and the foreign swap roles.
The dark comedy about culture, identity, spirituality, and sexuality is inspired by true stories.
In 2014, while foraging through her parents’ basement, she discovered her father’s worn suitcase from his very first journey to the U.S., with a single statement scribbled in black sharpie on the back of the bag: “When I die, discard this bag if you like, until then it stays.” This sparked a curiosity about her parents’ life journey and led to vulnerable interviews where they shared stories from their history they had never spoken of before, Gandhi writes on her website.
The telling of these stories began to bridge the cultural and generational distance between her and her family. Gandhi then realized by weaving their stories with her own life-changing journey to India in 2009 for her brother’s arranged marriage, she had a powerful story she had to share with the world.
“Muthaland,” according to Gandhi, who was born in Mumbai, raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, Calif., and who now calls Chicago her home, shares the magic of her journey to India, full of prophets, ritual, and the convergence of American and Indian cultures.
Through the play, Gandhi not only focuses on how a young Indian American woman straddles two worlds and cultures, but also brings to the fore the traumatic experience of a sexual assault that happened during the trip to India while she was at a meditation camp. In “Muthaland,” Gandhi plays the role of herself and the man who sexually assaulted her.
“We were having our first table read of the show and I had put together all these stories and I was skating over the assault. The assault wasn’t part of the play,” Gandhi told NBC News. “I thought I was healed, but I didn’t realize it…I’ve always been a strong advocate against victim shaming and I realized that I was silencing my own voice about the assault because there was a part of me that felt like I was ashamed.”
Writing and performing the play has been a difficult, but empowering, experience for the 38-year-old actress, who told NBC that she was ready to move forward and tell her story of resilience and faith.
“I was at a place in my life where I had a story in me that I felt compelled to tell. So, I told it,” she said. “I had come to a point in myself as a woman and as an artist where I felt squished by the constraints of what society was telling me I could be and what I could and couldn’t talk about, and I had to break out of it.”
“Muthaland” has played at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as a participant of the National Asian American Theater Conference and Festival, and The Statera Foundation for Women in the Arts Conference at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts in 2016.
The play was originally developed and presented at four sold-out workshop performances at the Chicago-based Silk Road Rising Theater for their Solo Festival, selected for the Ignition Festival of new plays at the Chicago-based Victory Gardens Theater, and for a special performance sponsored by the Indo-American Heritage Museum.
As an actress, Gandhi can be seen in the recurring role of Dr. Prospere on NBC’s “Chicago Fire.” She has also appeared on Fox’s “Empire” and “The Chicago Code”; NBC’s “Crisis”; and ABC’s “Betrayal,” among other television series.
Some of her regional theatre credits include Lookingglass Theatre, the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Arena Stage and Milwaukee Repertory Theatre.
“Muthaland” is now running through Oct. 21 at Berwyn, Illinois’ 16th Street Theater.