Nimet Kanji, Amitai Marmorstein and Carmela Sison in Sultans of the Street. Photo by Tim Matheson.
Nimet Kanji, Amitai Marmorstein and Carmela Sison in Sultans of the Street. Photo by Tim Matheson.

Anusree Roy is a writer on the rise. Her children’s play, Sultans of the Street, and her contemporary adult drama, Brothel #9, are both being presented in Vancouver this month. It is a feat most playwrights can only dream.

Sultans of the Street is an examination of a tragic reality of Indian sub-culture examined in films like Slumdog Millionaire: the exploitation of children by the desperate, disenfranchised, and the cruel.

In Sultans, middle-class brothers, Prakash and Ojha, have been skipping of school so Prakash can practice his kite flying skills for an upcoming festival. Younger brother Ojha has noticed two other children, similar in age, dressed as Hindi Gods and begging for money: “pay us and we will bless you, deny us and we will curse you.”

The brother’s notice the young beggars give most of their earnings to a woman they refer to as Aunty. Observing the two engaging in some petty theft, Ojha tries his hand at it as well. Caught by Aunty, she blackmails Ojha and Prakash into becoming beggars.

This play for young people has moments of great playfulness. Nimet Kanji plays all of the beggar’s victims in a variety of disguises, in addition to the role of Aunty. Kanji often breaks the fourth wall as she grabs kids from the audience to help. Each of her characters is accompanied by a personal soundtrack created by Rup Sidhu.

There are also very heavy scenes, likely to provoke post-show discussions between parents and kids.

Amitai Marmorstein, Parmiss Sehat, and Nadeem Phillip in Sultans of the Street. Photo by Tim Matheson.
Amitai Marmorstein, Parmiss Sehat, and Nadeem Phillip in Sultans of the Street. Photo by Tim Matheson.

Effective in her manipulation of the children to keep them in line, Aunty is not a black and white “moustache-twirling” villain. As she uses her status as an adult to berate the children, her machinations are that much crueler.  There is an additional story thread of two children who used to beg, got ill, and simply disappeared.

Under Marcus Youssef’s direction, the actors are equal parts compassionate and desperate, who do bad things that they are think are right. The actors playing the children – Carmela Sison, Amitai Marmorstein, Nadeem Philip, Parmiss Sehat – do a great job of capturing the situation, and the naivety of their characters.

There is a gentle playfulness in Kanji’s performance. She has charm to spare when dealing with the audience, but does not apologize for her portrayal of the self-serving Aunty. Rather she found the meanness in her character, without turning her into a cartoon villain. Her objective of exploiting the children is grounded in great need that almost justifies her single-minded cruelty.

The set by Amir Ofek captures a sanitized version of a rundown Indian street. Adrian Muir’s lighting design is both fanciful for a few surreal scene, and realistic beneath the relentless Indian sun.

Roy’s script could easily lose ten or fifteen minutes, as it does get repetitive in its mid-point. There was some restlessness in the audience as a result, but in the end it is a powerful kids show about issues that many Canadians might not have considered.

As I am not the intended demographic for Sultans of the Street, I invited ten year-old Zoey Koehn to write her own review. This is what Zoey has to say:

The play was very good. It had lots of beautiful music, and the actors were amazing, particularly Parmiss Sehat who played Ojha. The set piece that I liked the most was the balcony, it looked like a Greek tower balcony to me. The actors did a very good job of including the audience, and the two people who played Chun Chun and Mala did a very good job, although I could not really tell what age everyone was. Carmela Sison (Mala) did a good job with her part because she was a very good big sister. She also did a good job being protective of her brother while also being a very emotional character. The costume designer did a very good job, well, designing the costumes. They did a very good job interpreting a fight with adults and kids (I’ve been through lots) and really had very amazing set pieces and props. I really can’t imagine how they got the gate to open that way. The cart that had the food was really good too–it looked like there was real food on it! The part of the show when it was dark was really amazing as well, the stars particularly, they shimmered beautifully.

Overall it was amazing.

Sultans of the Street by Anusree Roy. A Carousel Theatre For Young People production in association with Diwali Fest. On stage at Waterfront Theatre (1412 Cartwright Street, Granville Island, Vancouver) until November 13. Visit http://carouseltheatre.ca for tickets and information.