SAN LEANDRO, Calif. — Being from two vastly different cultures can be a confusing experience for many people from mixed backgrounds, but Indian American playwright Naren Weiss said he finds that his multiple origins help him tell more universal stories.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m telling stories to Indian audiences, but the stories I’m telling are actually universal,” Weiss told India-West in a recent interview.
One play, “Censored,” gained considerable attention after it was adapted by the Stray Factory, an Indian performance arts collaborative, and was launched as a YouTube sketch that went viral in India.
Weiss said the idea for the play came to him after Shekinah Jacob's play “Ali J,” about a man who was towing the line between Hinduism and Islam during the Partition, was banned “almost everywhere (in India) except Bangalore because of protests” after having a successful run in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Weiss had already written for Stray Factory for five years before deciding to move back to the U.S. to pursue a Masters of Fine Arts in acting from Brooklyn College. Soon after, the collaborative wanted to do a show in the U.S., providing Weiss with the opportunity to release “The Abridged History of Modern Day India.”
“Not a lot of people know about the history of India, not because they don’t want to but there’s no real representation of what that history is,” Weiss explained to India-West.
The play follows Weiss and his friend Mohit Gautam as they go through the entire 400-year history of modern India in 50 minutes. He said the play may be revitalized in the middle of next year because it had a very successful run in Los Angeles.
The actor-writer explained that, because of the South Asian Diaspora, there were many people with Indian origins who had “mixed blood” like him, or had lost the connection to their heritage.
“Being Indian today is not just about being from India,” Weiss said.
Weiss said he has the ability to see the world from an Indian perspective, an American perspective and an Indian American perspective, having been born in Houston, Texas to “a white American father” and an Indian mother.
“I struggled a lot with culture, who I am,” Weiss said. “I struggled with whether I was an Indian in an American world or an American in an Indian world.”
After living in Houston for six years and spending three years each in San Antonio, Texas and Indianapolis, Ind., Weiss’s family decided to move to Chennai, India for the next 10 years.
He said for a long time he saw himself as “an American from India because the experience I was given when I was in India was that I was American.”
But now Weiss said he is facing a different kind of identity issue: deciding whether he is “an artist first or a human being first.”
“Artists, our egos are kind of fragile,” Weiss told India-West. “Everything we do feeds into our personal lives.”
Though most of his work is deeply rooted in South Asian culture, Weiss said his inspiration is always changing and he tries to be influenced by everything, good or bad.
His short play, “There Is a Field,” for instance, finds inspiration and borrows its title from the 13th century Persian poet Rumi’s poem.
At the moment, Weiss is working on a collection of short plays about “finding a way to invite all of your demons in.”
Now that the 24-year-old has finished his MFA degree, he said he is looking for festivals to take his show to but is also trying to live day-by-day.
“I usually like having my life planned for the next two years,” Weiss said, “but now I want to be in the moment.”