‘Indian Cowboy’ to come to life in DreamAcres barn
By Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy
Zaraawar Mistry may have never expected his character Gayomar Katrak to find himself in a barn, but that is precisely where this unique character will come to life during a special performance at the DreamAcres Farm.
“Indian Cowboy” is a play written by Mistry that is scheduled to appear at the DreamAcres Farm performance barn next month as part of a fund-raising effort sponsored by the Spring Valley Diversity Task Force (SVDTF) and the newly-formed Dreamery Rural Arts Initiative.
The play chronicles the life experiences of a boy found under a banyan tree by three Parsi brothers in Hyderabad, India, as he grows to become a man who travels to America searching for his sense of self.
According to DreamAcres Farm proprietor and SVDTF member Eva Barr, “It’s a fictional account of an Indian immigrant who comes to the United States in pursuit of an acting career and ends up finding himself caught up in the events surrounding the fall of the Twin Towers in 2001, which shakes him up and ultimately causes his return to India.”
“Who are we, really?” asked thespian Mistry. “The play, while not autobiographical, is an expression of my soul. It comes from deep within my belly. As an artist, my work is not intended to be didactic, but open-ended, not descriptive, but evocative. I seek to reach my audience in unexpected ways, through the back door, tackling serious subjects through humor.”
He explained in the play’s Mixed Blood Theatre (of Minneapolis) program, “While some parts of the story are based on experiences that I’ve had, the events described, other than the historical ones, are imaginary, and all the characters are fictional. When Jack Reuler (of Mixed Blood Theatre) commissioned a script from me in 1999, I intended to write a play inspired by the life of Sabu Dastagir, an Indian-born Hollywood actor from the 1930s. I was born in India, but my Zoroastrian ancestors were themselves immigrants to India from Iran in the 10th century. The Zoroastrians of India, who are known as ‘Parsis’ because they came from the Iranian province of Pars, are to this day a very small but distinct minority in India – less than 100,000 people in a country of a billion. Sabu was not a Parsi, but he was an actor, and his life story was fascinating to me.”
Mistry continued, “Around the same time I began work on the Sabu project, I had just finished writing a few random pages about a fictional Parsi character named Gayomar Katrak, whose story was inspired by my own experiences as an Indian-born actor in America. When the Mixed Blood commission came along, I placed Gayomar on the back burner and gave all my attention to Sabu. Excited about my first commission, I set out to write the play. Unfortunately, everything I wrote about Sabu came out sounding trite and derivative. I just couldn’t find my voice for the piece. This went on for not just a few months, but a few years. Then, one day, I suddenly realized that the play I was trying so hard to write wasn’t meant to be told through the real life of Sabu, but rather through the fictional story of Gayomar Katrak. So I said goodbye to Sabu and hello once again to Gayomar, and the play just flowed out of me.”
“Indian Cowboy” is a story familiar to Mistry, in that it is about his generation of Indian immigrants and his perceived ambiguities of their experience in America.
In an interview with Reuler and Mistry in The Twin Cities Pulse, Reuler states, “A recurring premise in Zaraawar’s work is the notion of a stranger in a strange land. For example, as a Parsi growing up in India, he wasn’t ‘Indian enough.’ In America, he isn’t considered ‘Western enough’ or ‘Indian enough’.”
Mistry was born in 1963 in India. He has been acting since he was a child, but studied computer science after graduating from high school. While attending school, he dabbled in theater at the Dramatic Centre of Hyderabad (DCH) in India, cultivating his love of acting.
The biography accompanying “Indian Cowboy’s” program reads, “Born in India, Zaraawar Mistry is a theater actor, writer, director and producer in the Twin Cities. He was a co-founder of the Center for Independent Artists (City Pages’ Best Theater for New Work in 2003), and a former associate artistic director at Theater Mu in Minneapolis from 1996-1999. As an actor, he has performed at the La Jolla Playhouse, the Guthrie Theater, the Children’s Theater Company and Mixed Blood Theater. He has collaborated as an actor, writer and director with Ragamala Music and Dance Theater. His one-man play, ‘Sohrab and Rustum,’ was selected by City Pages as one of the year’s ten best in 2002, and was presented by the Asia Society in both New York and Houston. Zaraawar has an MFA in theater from the University of California San Diego and a BA in theater from Bennington College in Vermont. He and his wife, Leslye Orr, are off on a new adventure – establishing a performing arts studio in St. Paul, Dreamland Arts.”
Mistry wrote “Indian Cowboy” because he wanted to share about cultural displacement and the occurrences that happen to immigrants to America, and about people’s perceptions of what comprises another culture.
“Many of my classmates are successful professionals in America,” he explained. “I was interested in taking a closer look at my generation’s expectations of, and experiences in, America. I was also interested in tackling issues of cultural identity, particularly in the aftermath of 9/11.”
His mission is to educate about the various people and cultures living together in the same country or state. Being an immigrant to the United States allows him to highlight and revel in diversity.
“I love Minnesota, and I love living in the Twin Cities. There are many ways to share the rich diversity of the world, and performing my play at Eva Barr’s farm is one way to do so. For me, diversity is, and always has been, a fact of daily life.”
The 80-minute, candlelit performance has no sets or props – Mistry is alone in the telling.
Though he didn’t consciously decide to write his play as a one-act, one-person play, he portrays all the characters, including foundling Gayomar Katrak, Mehli Katrak, Soli Katrak, Fali Katrak, Nerigish Katrak, Babu Nath, Behram Baria, Wendy Williams, Sam Reese, Tina Cama, Altab Ansari, and an engineer and an official.
Because it is told as one man’s story, it stands best performed as a form of storytelling than as a large-cast production. Audiences have reacted differently to Mistry’s play because it blends humor with truths about a serious historical event.
“Their reactions are varied. Some have cried, some have learned deep lessons, others have connected with the humor. One critic thought it was literally too dark, while others loved the atmosphere of the natural candlelight.” Mistry most appreciates the play’s ending, naming it his favorite part of the production.
Two people assist Mistry in producing “Indian Cowboy.” Musician Keith Lee plays live music and artistic collaborator Kathleen Sullivan “does everything else, but does not participate once the play begins.”
Sullivan’s biography reads, “Kathleen Sullivan has been a longtime collaborator with Zaraawar Mistry, starting with studio shows at the Children’s Theater Company (CTC) in 1991, the first Minnesota Fringe Festival in 1992, Salman Rushdie’s ‘Haroun and the Sea of Stories’ at Mixed Blood in 2000, and most recently, on ‘Sohrab and Rustum.’ She acted for many years at CTC, starting in 1969, was a company member of the Margolis Brown Physical Theatre and has performed at various other theaters including the Minnesota Opera, Mixed Blood, the Loring Playhouse, Bryant Lake Bowl and the Playwright’s Center.”
Lee’s biography reveals that “Indian Cowboy” is his fourth project with Mistry. “He was first bitten by the theater bug when he was asked by a friend to play guitar for a school production of “Under Milkwood” by Dylan Thomas at Carleton College. Since then, he has had numerous acting, tech and administrative credits for various Twin Cities theater companies, including the Katha Dance Company, Pangea World Theater, Minnesota Fringe Festival, Theater Mu and the Asian American Renaissance.”
“Indian Cowboy” has yet to be presented to an audience outside the Twin Cities.
“The Mixed Blood presentation in January was the premiere, but it is scheduled to be presented at Stages Theater in Houston in 2007. My other one-person play, ‘Sohrab and Rustum,’ has been presented in New York and Houston.”
Regarding the opportunity to perform at DreamAcres, he stated, “I am honored and excited. I am intrigued by the challenge of performing in a barn on a farm in southeastern Minnesota. I hope that people will come to see the play because the goal is to raise money to provide valuable artistic opportunities for students in the area.”
Proceeds from the performances of “Indian Cowboy” will benefit the Flourish Summer Art Camp, held each August at DreamAcres Farm to expose students ages 12 to 18 to the experience of living on a farm and using the farm as a basis for creative expression.