When I first read Rahul Varma's Counter Offence last year, besides being completely captivated by the script, I was stunned to learn that he had written it in 1995. How could he have possibly known that the themes he tackles of race, the police and minority politics (set in Canada, that bastion of social equity, peace, justice and neutrality) would be at the center of a firestorm in the United States more than 20 years later?
In recent years, news of police shootings and the resulting riots and outrage have become a regular occurrence, almost to the point where they no longer dominate the headlines or the national conversation because of their disturbing frequency. We as a society are becoming collectively immune to the reporting - there is, of course, the immediate customary backlash after news breaks of yet another shooting which then quickly gets lost and diverted in the face of the next piece of reality TV emerging from an administration in perpetual turmoil and at the center of domestic and international political intrigue in the nation's capital. (As I write this, the media is rife with stories of Sean Spicer's resignation after 6 months of defending an embattled presidency in the throes of an unending stream of scandals fueled by controversial firings, daily revelations around Russian meddling and colorful late night tweets.)
How does an already marginalized, often resource-deprived section of the citizenry compete for attention in this climate where news cycles last mere minutes? Where does this leave those that are truly fighting the good fight against a system that enables and sustains a police culture that carries out regular assault, harassment, discrimination and murder of minorities without consequence? Every week there is news that yet another police officer has been acquitted of murder charges. We learn again and again that we as individual citizens are held to a different set of standards when it comes to capital crimes than those who are entrusted with enforcing the law and protecting us. For those South Asians who distanced themselves from the furor around Philando Castile or Jordan Edwards in favor of viewing themselves as an affluent, educated minority and brushed police brutality off as a problem of the 'other', Sureshbhai Patel's case came as a rude awakening and hit far too close to home. How did a father who was visiting his son to take care of his grandchild end up in a nightmare which began with a walk around his Alabama neighborhood and ended in a savage police encounter during which he was violently thrown to the pavement and left paralyzed?
In the midst of all this, as a theatre company committed to focusing on themes of social justice, it seemed more important than ever to give voice to a story like Counter Offence. Interestingly, by choosing to center the plot around a young girl being abused by her husband, Rahul brings domestic violence and questions of gender equality front and center and places these in the context of a society with deep divides. The characters, Indian and Iranian, African American and Caucasian, each with their own sets of struggles amidst overwhelming cultural baggage, reinforce the reality that while we supposedly co-exist in a multi ethnic, diverse society in a world that claims to be moving towards globalization, individuals and communities continue to be increasingly segmented and isolated. And it may not be too cynical a commentary on us as human beings that the only thing that unites us are our age old human vices - greed, ambition, and the relentless pursuit of power - which ultimately lead to the exploitation of the true victims who are sacrificed at the altar of political and personal agendas.
I am deeply indebted to Rahul for graciously entrusting his inspiring work to me and for giving me permission to change the context of his original play to bring it to the United States. I have chosen Cleveland as the setting, since it continues to be one of the most racially charged cities in our country. But that is pure happenstance. It could've been any city, large or small - New York, Boston, Seattle, Chicago, Ferguson or Madison. Counter Offence forces us to come face to face with that quintessential question for our times - how we got to this state of affairs and where we go from here. It is our collective responsibility to keep this issue from fading from public memory, to recognize it as a challenge that affects each of us, even those cushioned in our suburban sanctuaries, and to keep seeking answers.
- Sindu Singh