Priyanka Shetty, the playwright and star of the one-woman show, "The Elephant in the Room," is coming to Firehouse Theatre for a limited run Aug. 10 and 11.
Shetty began her theater career in an unusual way, as a software engineer.
She was working her information technology job when she noticed that there was an enormous auditorium in her building, and it was rarely being put to use. So Shetty put together a theater troupe with her co-workers, wrote a play and produced it. It was her first playwriting experience, and it completely changed her life. "We filled the auditorium," she says. "People were sitting along the aisles and on the stairs. They tripled the funds!"
She continued to produce plays, running her own theatre company while working her IT job. As she approached five years at her job, she began to reconsider her life choices. In a leap of faith, Shetty quit her job and sent out applications to theatre graduate programs in the U.S., where she landed in Charlottesville at the University of Virginia. It was here, in a voice class, that she began writing what would later become "The Elephant in the Room."
"We were supposed to write a piece of passionate concern," she says.
Shetty chose race and racism as her topic.
"It ended up being a really light hearted standup speech." In the show, Shetty pokes fun at Indian stereotypes and the whitewashing of Indian culture. "Do a Google search for 'yoga,' you won't see a single Indian person," she points out.
The title, "Elephant in the Room," is a reference to silly yet common Indian stereotypes, the idea that Indians all ride around on elephants, and an implication that this play is going to address the things we avoid discussing -- things like racism, prejudice and privilege.
In the U.S., Shetty says she was disappointed by the lack of interest in where she came from, in who she really is.
"You just get stuck with this idea of who they think you are," she says. "When I step outside of that, what I am supposed to be, it isn't met with a lot of enthusiasm."
Shetty revisited "The Elephant in the Room" after encountering racism herself for the first time. It shocked her.
"For my entire life I lived in a different country, where I wasn't exactly the minority--though there was the patriarchy and all of that," she says. "But I, for the first time, experienced something blatantly racist, and it happened in an academic environment, and at the time I didn't realize that what I was experiencing was part of a deeper issue."
It wasn't until August 2017, when she witnessed some of the most frightening and flagrant displays of racism up-close, that Shetty came to understand that her own experiences were a part of the larger context of race relations in America.
"I was in Charlottesville, Virginia, when the white supremacists came," she says. Horrified by the violence, Shetty has been exploring the depths of racism and prejudice that led up to these events ever since.
"This play is part of a triptych," she says. "The Elephant in the Room" is the first in the series, looking at Shetty's own personal experiences with racism. The second, "#Charlottesville," constructed completely of firsthand experiences of residents, delves into the history of race and racism in the Charlottesville area. A third play, "The Wall," is forthcoming, and will explore immigration issues in the U.S.
Shetty says "Elephant in the Room" has resonated with audiences so far.
"It was after a preview performance about a year ago that I realized I may have written something larger than my life, my context. People from the LGBTQ and black communities thanked me for what I had said. I love the community conversations that happen after the play."
Shetty describes her play as "a call to action," and she hopes that audiences leave the theater entertained, but also with new perspective, with questions to ask themselves and assumptions to interrogate.
"You can see a play, feel good about it and go back home and do nothing, but that doesn't change the world," Shetty says. "I found a purpose in theater I want to keep talking about issues that are relevant."
Priyanka Shetty's "The Elephant in the Room" will run from Aug. 10 to Aug. 11 at Firehouse Theatre. Tickets cost $10 in advance and $20 at the door. firehousetheatre.org.