Storytelling has proven to be a great device for the immigrant experience. Off Kendrick is a theater group in which South Asian immigrants share their realities as minority groups in the United States. In between humorous adventures and retellings of harsh circumstances, Off Kendrick emphasizes the importance of storytelling for the immigrant experience. To elaborate more on this event, we have asked Chandreyee Lahiri, one of the presenters, some questions to learn more about what to expect from Off Kendrick’s presentation titled “Voices” and register now for this event on June 10!
BBF: As there will probably be an invitation for the audience to participate in your presentation, how important do you think it is for immigrants to exchange stories between each other?
Chandreyee: Our show “Voices” is intended for a broad audience of non-immigrants so we can start to break through the social barriers that divide us and stride towards inclusiveness. People tend to fear the unknown and succumb to reductive stereotypes. For non-immigrants to walk in the shoes of immigrants, if only for the duration of their stories, may bridge this chasm. But there is also great value of sharing stories WITHIN the immigrant community. When you arrive in a foreign country, leaving behind your support systems, grappling with new traditions and customs—social and emotional isolation is as common as it is harmful. Finding a community of like people through storytelling can make a big difference to this process of settling in. For immigrants who have “assimilated” over time, sharing stories about their journey of adjustment and struggle can also enrich both the teller and the community. For example, one of the stories in the Lit Crawl event is about a father’s confusing encounter with their Indian-American child’s mis-interpretation of his career, the career required so much effort and sacrifice. Many immigrants related to this story and hopefully, some felt less alone after hearing it.
BBF: Are there any specific audience receptions that you remember fondly from previous performances?
Chandreyee: The 2018 “Voices” mainstage show was staged in Waltham and among the sold-out audience (on both nights) was the Mayor. For the mainstage shows, our Director allows a few stories to be in a native language and we provide live captions for the audience to follow along. Mayor McCarthy told me that she turned away from it on purpose at times to savor the full experience of Bengali, a new and foreign language to her. She was delighted that by referring to the captions just occasionally, she got the gist of the story but also thoroughly enjoyed experiencing the mannerisms, cadences, and sounds of the teller performing in his own tongue. I was thrilled at this huge step she took, preemptively, to immerse herself into this world. This was a heartening and unexpected example of community.
BBF: Do you think theater is the best expression platform for the immigrant experience?
Chandreyee: The group that produces “Voices”—the mainstage show as well as the Story Slam series—isin fact a theater group, though Storytelling is not true theater. But yes, having a platform like a live, staged event is very effective in communicating immigrant experiences because of the personal connection it offers. To see the teller’s face, experience their body language, and be in front of a stage primes the audience to truly listen and connect. The Pandemic showed us that virtual shows can also work. Our Mainstage show is usually held in Greater Boston at a theater every other year but the 2020 show, scheduled to occur at the Cambridge Center for Arts, had to be cancelled due to COVID-19. We switched to an online event via Zoom and YouTube to a wonderful reception. We missed the energy and connection of a live event and can’t wait to return to a stage but it showed us that we can reach and touch people’s hearts and minds in many ways.
BBF: Humorous events as well as hardships are definitely present in your work. Do you consider this balance to be essential in your performances?
Chandreyee: Absolutely. Every curated “Voices” show attempts to present the many facets of immigrant experience, from comic misadventures through poignant struggles. Hidden in the diverse stories are nuggets of truth that can speak volumes, and appealing to a range of emotions helps reach a wide audience. In our “Story Slams,” which are impromptu contests judged by the audience, tellers sign up with 5 minute true stories and we draw names from a hat at random. Since we don’t know what stories will be told, we have less opportunity to ensure that all tones of stories are covered, but interestingly, it works out. The story that won the March “Voices” story slam was pretty funny and the two stories that were in close running were powerful and emotional.
Be sure to mark your calendar for June 10 and check out “Voices”! You can find out more about Off Kendrick here.