Can the Gazelle ever win against the Lion?

© Jeremy Cabrera

A review of Koomsatira’s ‘Psycho 6’ and the impossibility of living an ordinary life as a youth belonging to the marginalized sections of society

By Shailee Rajak

The sun is out as is the rest of the world! As pandemic mandated restrictions ease down, the vibrant Montreal theatre world has come alive and is abuzz with the excitement of new productions and stagings, sorely missed during the last two summers. Kickstarting this season, Teesri Duniya theatre’s “Psycho 6”—written and performed by Oliver Koomsatira—explores the intertwined nexus of the government-funded foster care structure, youth gangs, pimping, increasing crime rates, and the defunct prison system. Directed by Liz Valdez, the play takes up the important task of asking the difficult questions—rarely addressed in the theatre community otherwise—about the extreme vulnerability of marginalized youth to criminal activities and general delinquency. It strives to explore the exploitative structures of a highly material society that creates oppressive conditions of socio-economic deprivation wherein the young generation is often pushed down paths of increasing danger out of sheer necessity. The play was well-received by the audience and had a successful run at the Montreal Arts Interculturels (MAI) from June 10th-23rd.

Semi-autobiographical in nature, the play takes the audience on a 75-minute cruise of emotions—from intense angst and rage to heart wrenching distress—as it traces the life of ‘K’, a young man who has been in and out of foster care since the age of 9. Surrounded by a group of rowdy peers involved in gangs and petty crime, a sick sister who desperately needs monetary help to access proper healthcare, and an unaccountable legal system that continues to function along a stereotypical axis of unfair labelling with regards to lower-class populations, K’s dreams of becoming a musician are never meant to be fulfilled. The almost dream-like quality of the sequences, where K performs his rap during the play, perfectly captures the ephemerality of his desires lost within the murkiness of his everyday reality. The protagonist’s words, “I have dreams too, like most of you. If I get to 25…”, hit like a punch in the gut while the powerful lyrics of his songs are still ringing in our ears. The play does a sublime job of breaking the romantic façade of an idyllic, innocent childhood to capture the utter helplessness of the youth belonging to a particular stratum of society. The constant reality-checks, given by tidbits of factual information interspersed within the narrative, provide commentary on inherent class inequalities, an ineffective prison system—prioritized in the GDP over the public education system—, the growing rates of crime in spite of this, the highly exploitative art industry that functions in this capitalist economy, as well as the seductive lure of easy money within the pimping business. The play’s central aesthetic foregrounds this formidable juxtaposition of abstract, yet intense emotionality of the individual constantly struggling to escape this quagmire of factoids anchoring him down to a dismal life.

Born in the not so affluent regions of Laval, Koomsatira and Valdez’s experiences of growing up amidst this culture of delinquency gain life in their reflections on stage. Their childhood was spent surrounded by friends who belonged to households run by single parents who weren’t always emotionally or physically available. Incidents of petty crime, such as car hijacks and thievery, were common and litter their earlier memories in abundance. The more heart-breaking accidents and loss of life, resulting from this general state of life, had a huge impact on their formative years. As such, the casting decision—to have the writer interpret his own words for the audience on stage—works like a charm! Oliver’s fluid, dance-like bodily movements are perfectly synchronized to the moody synth music and capture the essence of the play as easily as breathing. Even as he undertakes the arduous task of portraying 23 different personalities in this monodrama, his unwavering energy as he jumps and dances between characters keeps the audience riveted to their seats. As an anonymous theatre-goer aptly commented after a show, “It brings together everything—theatre, music, movement, masks, rap, and dance.” It came as a surprise to me when I learnt that neither Koomsatira nor Valdez have had any previous, professional experience in dancing or choreography. When asked about her experience of directing Koomsatira, Valdez noted, “Throughout the rehearsal and production process, I kept on asking myself, ‘How would the direction have been different if it was done by a man?’ For one thing, the performance would have been more violent, more aggressive.” Indeed, there is something feminine, something delicately communicative and sensitive about Koomsatira’s body language which is perfectly conducive to the message the play seeks to convey. In contrast to the performance, the text of the play itself is very harsh in its treatment of women and portrayal of femininity. In its usage of language and curse words which are derogatorily feminine in meaning, as well as the scenes portraying the pimping and prostitution of girls as young as 13-14 years of age, the play is jarringly horrifying. These opposing forces of feminine and masculine energy—battling for dominance in the fragile balance that exists between the acting and the directing, the script and the performance— beautifully encapsulate the crucial metaphor that forms the fulcrum around which the plot revolves; in order to survive this world, you need to become the ‘lion’, the king of the jungle or else you will be hunted and eaten like a gazelle, a prey to life as it exists in this era. This metaphorical aesthetic—and a very realistic representation of class-based frustrations—is what makes the triggering language and general sexism an artistic choice that adds on to the overarching dynamics of the play; indeed, an admirable effort by the playwright-director duo who seem to perfectly understand the responsibility that comes with performing politically charged, yet politically correct theatre.

Even as the play delves into the consequences of gang-related gun violence, questions of racial differences within this world of delinquency remain unexplored. While Koomsatira briefly touches upon the growth of crime as a highly lucrative industry that benefits national economies, the play homogenizes this phenomenon by refusing to acknowledge the major role that race and ethnicity have to play. Several tragedies—involving hate-crimes, murders of immigrant individuals or BIPOC families—have created waves of unrest in Canada in the past few years. Racial profiling by the police is another issue which has gained a lot of attention recently. It is no hidden fact that even amongst the marginalized, certain racial populations remain more vulnerable to crime and gun-violence, simply because of their disadvantaged and stigmatized position in the social and cultural hierarchy of the nation. The political legitimization underpinning gun-violence also passes unnoticed in the play, as subtext. Perhaps, an elucidation of the fact that gun-related violence and shootings are more commonly associated with alt-right, extremist groups and perpetrators with no previous criminal record—rather than organized, criminal gangs—would have provided further refinement to the abstract politics of the play. A call for more stringent gun laws would have been the perfect bow to wrap up this theatrical present.

Ultimately, the play situates itself successfully amongst the plethora of portrayals of the universal human condition which abound in contemporary theatre. Yet, it interrupts the monotony of this static discourse by empathetically capturing the vulnerability of the poor, marginalized sections of society without proper access to adequate social, cultural, political, and economic resources. In its complete usage of the theatrical space, in the rich intermingling of movements, sounds, lights, and words, the play gives a resounding homage to the theatre of experiential art that asks questions while being cathartic. In these post-pandemic times of gloomy stagnancy, Koomsatira’s play comes across as a breath of refreshing air that vibrates with the full potency of political activism at the community level and the resilient evolution of the individual human spirit.