House of Joy:

Indian American playwright Madhuri Shekar’s new play, “House of Joy,” will run through Sept. 1 at Cal Shakes, Orinda, Calif. Nandita Shenoy as Gulal, Lipica Shah as Noorah and Rotimi Agbabiaka as Salima in “House of Joy.” (Kevin Berne/Cal Shakes photo)

Indian American playwright Madhuri Shekar’s “House of Joy,” which is an action-adventure romance set at the beginning of the end of the Mughal empire, made its world premiere at Cal Shakes, Orinda, Calif., Aug. 14. The play will run through Sept. 1.

In the play, Hamida, an elite female bodyguard in the imperial harem, has been raised to believe that the House of Joy is paradise on earth. (It even says so on the gate!) But if it’s so wonderful, why would the Chief Queen try to run away? If the emperor is infallible, why is there civil war, rebellion, and rumors of famine? Risking her friendships, her honor, and the lives of those she loves, she enlists the help of unlikely friends in a revolution of her own. Together, the denizens of House of Joy face an ultimate choice: do you stay comfortable and sheltered—or fight for what’s right?

 “‘House of Joy’ is set in a time and place that is very different from our own, a fantastical and wondrous era. But of course, history repeats itself, and these characters face the same challenges, fears, and dangers that we experience here and now,” said Shekhar. “As we fight for a better world, our joy and love and anger are the best weapons we have.”

Audiences may expect “House of Joy” to be a historical play performed by South Asian actors, but the play overturns expectations in astonishing ways. And while this history is a playground that has been repurposed in many ways, some elements — like a multicultural cast — are rooted in fact, rather than inclusive modern casting. European travelers who visited the Mughal court were surprised to discover a vibrant smorgasbord of cultures with women and hijras from many parts of the world.

This diversity is reflected in Cal Shakes’ production: each actor found research to support their character’s place in the harem. Hamida and the Chief Nazeer Salima may have arrived at the harem through the Arab slave trade from Africa. Hamida’s best friend Roshni, of Japanese descent, could have made it to India through the Portuguese slave trade that extended from Japan to Goa. The Chief Queen Mariyam possibly arrived from a kingdom in the Philippines, which had pre-Spanish links with India via South East Asia. And the head bodyguard Gulal is inspired by the fierce warrior tribes of Mongolia.

Shekar’s “House of Joy” knits historical inspiration with a distinctly contemporary sensibility — and feats of strength, romance, daring, and bravery.

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