Theater: “Public Obscenities” @ Theater for a New Audience
An unusual law promulgated in India under British rule remains on the books today. It deals with so-called “public obscenities;” i.e., acts or words uttered in public which may offend the sensibilities of other people—and which can be prosecuted under law. Of course, one man’s obscenity is a New Yorker’s everyday F-bomb, so this ambiguous definition is what makes “Public Obscenities” (Theater for a New Audience) intriguing.
A revival of Shayok Misha Chowdhurys’s 2023 dramedy, “Public” is set in modern-day Kolkota (fka Calcutta). Choton (Abrar Haque), a Bengali-American doctoral student living in LA, has returned to his native city to visit his aunt (Gargi Mukher) and her husband (Debashis Roy Chowdhury), both of whom live in his late grandfather’s house. Choton has brought along his Black cinematographer boyfriend, Raheem (Jakeem Dante Powell). His and Rasheed’s goal is to film a documentary about LGBT life in India. To further their research—ahem—they set up a joint Grindr account.
The relative calm of aunt and uncle’s household is disrupted by the discovery of an undeveloped film reel inside the deceased patriarch’s camera, revealing some possibly uncompromising photos. The aunt, his daughter, is understandably upset. Meanwhile, her late-night online billiards-addicted husband is sexting a female stranger in Minnesota.
Finally, as part of his research, Choton interviews Shou, played by the Indian transgender activist Tashnuva Anan. Shou identifies as kothi, a native Indian gender similar to an effeminate man. She and fellow trans NaFis gush about their sexual rendezvous with closeted muscular football players. Whoops.
So which of the above constitutes a public obscenity? It may call to mind the 1930s Hays Code in Hollywood where one censor was alleged to remark, “I can’t define obscenity in a film but I’ll know it when i see it.”
You will have plenty of time to consider the question because “Public” is nearly three hours long. And while there are some story lines that aren’t neatly tied up, and the pace drags here and there, it all worked for me. In short, there’s nothing obscene about it. Save for the fact the run ends February 18 and you may curse yourself for missing it.
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