By Allyce Morrissey
A hollow is not a hole, but a place of opportunity. That is what writer‑performer Anu Bhatt has come to believe.
“Hollow/Wave” is the story of Ms. Bhatt’s childhood in San Diego, as the daughter of a Bengali mother and a Gujarati father. It is about the lessons she took in Bharatanatyam, a form of Indian classical dance, with her sister Div. It is about the way she felt othered as the only South Asian girl in her class. It is about the sexual trauma she experienced as a child, and the impact those experiences have had well into her adult life. It is about going to grad school in Chicago, and finally asking for help to deal with the hollow she felt in her belly.
In “Hollow/Wave,” Ms. Bhatt embodies most of the characters in her life. She dons pink reading glasses ‑ fitted with a neck strap, so they won’t fall off ‑ to play her elementary school self, transitioning seamlessly but dramatically from adult narrator to child. She also portrays both her parents, down to their distinct Bengali and Gujarati dialects. Ms. Bhatt is a charming, engaging, and vulnerable performer. She shares her memories and experiences with detail, care, and precision. She describes the fashion and cultural trends of each significant period in her life. She notes the details of the way her sister wore her hair and the distinguishing characteristics of her parents’ accents. In doing so, she creates a shorthand for her audience to follow later on ‑ hair pulled over the shoulder like a long braid, for example, means her sister Div.
Ms. Bhatt also incorporates impressive sequences of Bharatanatyam throughout the piece, as dance performance, and as a deeper element of storytelling. Bharatanatyam, Ms. Bhatt explains, requires very precise and symbolic hand gestures, which may be used to greet, welcome, express, or reject. “Our hands do things we are proud of; they do things we regret” ‑ Ms. Bhatt repeats this line throughout her performance, and it comes to have more meaning with each repetition. The earliest of her multiple experiences of childhood sexual trauma happened when a man in a grocery store exposed himself to her when she was seven, and coerced her into sexual contact. After this incident, Ms. Bhatt says, she remembered feeling a desperate need to wash her hands.
In her performance, the shame and guilt she feels for her unwanted sexual experiences comes to be exemplified in this need to wash her hands. Ms. Bhatt frequently returns to the large gold-colored basin filled with water to cleanse her hands. In grad school, feelings of shame from the years of not addressing her sexual trauma, and of feeling othered by non‑South Asian peers who can’t pronounce her name and ask if she “speaks Indian,” compound into a mental breakdown for her. In the piece, she tries to perform her Bharatanatyam, but cannot keep up with the act.
The sound design by Eric Backus incorporates ocean sounds, classical Indian music, and contemporary music corresponding to each year described in Ms. Bhatt’s memory. The soundscape indicates transitions in time, and between performance and narration. It also adds a new dimension to the detailed world she builds for her audience.
Ms. Bhatt’s hour‑long performance is thoroughly engaging and moving. She does not offer miracle solutions to the challenges of life. But despite her strong will and self‑reliance, she has come to learn to ask for help, and to find possibility in feelings of emptiness.
“Celebrate your demise” is the mantra Anu Bhatt inherited from her father. You feel good, great; you feel bad, great ‑ we are all going to die so we might as well feel something and enjoy the ride while we’re here. The power of an ocean wave is both calming and terrifying in its inevitability, and sometimes you have to stay calm and let the waves crash over you.
Written and Performed by Anu Bhatt
Directed by Barbara Zahora
October 29, 2019 at 7:30 PM
Photo by Crimson Cat
2019 United Solo Theater Festival
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
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ALLYCE MORRISSEY is a dramaturg based in New York City. She holds an MA in Dramaturgy and Writing for Performance from Goldsmiths, University of London, and a BA in English from Villanova University. She also works in entertainment advertising.