"No community is without love": Students reflect on Behind the Beautiful Forevers
Behind The Beautiful Forevers (BTBF) is a powerful Grade 12 Drama production, adapted from Pulitzer Prize-winner Katherine Boo's novel of the same name that depicts the hardships and relationship struggles in the squatters slum of Annawadi bordering Mumbai airport. Read the experiences of three students who were part of the team behind BTBF at UWCSEA East.
Noshin Saiyaara (Assistant Director):
Behind the Beautiful Forevers is the Grade 12 Production of the 2019/20 school year, and it has been an absolute pleasure of mine to help unfold and create in an Assistant Director position. The play follows the world of Annawadi, a makeshift slum in Mumbai that sits next to an array of glittering hotels and the International Airport. What sets Behind the Beautiful Forevers apart from any production I have previously witnessed or participated in UWCSEA East is its contemporary, authentic premise. Katherine Boo opened the Western eye onto a place riddled with corruption, discrimination, and humanity. The organic nature of the source material paints each scene with a thick stripe of reality; society is not limited to the luxuries and privileges that I myself have gotten used to. It is not always air-conditioned airplane cabins, brick-walled and glassy city skylines, or parties disappearing into the lobbies of grand hotels. But while ‘Beautiful Forevers’ forced me to look through the shelter of the life I lead, it helped me understand that no community is without love and family. No society, no matter the level of its wealth or financial success, is without joyous celebrations and well-deserved indulgences.
The alignment of the play to our UWCSEA Service values is what drew me to the text in the initial planning stages. Theatre and the entirety of the five components of UWC surrounding academics, activities, personal and social education, service, and outdoor education have always had an implicit connection, but it has never been clearer than with Beautiful Forevers. Without a doubt, every cast and crew member including myself now better understands the worth of one piece of fabric or plastic or rubber or metal than ever before, and we hope this newfound knowledge and recognition of our privileges is instilled into the audience as well.
Playing Manju Waghekar in Behind the Beautiful Forevers has been the most unique responsibility. At its core, this play is raw. The authenticity that motivates the characters is driven by the fact that they are, as my castmate Quentin said, “above all, human”. It is our responsibility to represent this humanity that makes this production so unlike any others that I have participated in. Attempting to discern the livelihood, the pain, the anguish, yet most of all, the joy that these characters possess makes this production worthwhile. Even the attempt at capturing the genuine complexities of the people that populate the slums of Annawadi — despite how impossible a feat — allows me to rework my perceptions of the world around me.
Through this play, I have learnt that despite the geographical distance that separates me and the society I have grown up in from the chaotic wonder of Annawadi, this play has given me a tighter grasp on societies so far-removed from me. It is through the joyous celebrations of Navratri, the secrecy of educating Meena and the protection from my character’s mother Asha that I have recognised that no community is without love, family and aspiration. Yet, this play goes so much beyond four days of performance in the Black Box — and an acknowledgement of this is what makes the theatre experience valuable. Understanding the morality, the hunger and the genuine passion that drives individuals allows us to bridge the gap between ourselves and those who we will never encounter.
While my participation in Behind the Beautiful Forevers has been enriching in gaining an awareness of other communities, people and histories, none of this would have been possible without the tireless effort and passion each and everyone in this play has shown. From sorting through rubbish in the prop room to running scenes at lunch, Behind the Beautiful Forevers is not only a High School Production, but also a community I share with my fellow cast-mates, directors, those working behind the scenes, and the audience.
I remember frantically practising the audition monologue outside the Drama studios. It was the day I had put off for years, too timid, too insecure, to audition for a UWCSEA production. Since middle school, I wanted to be a part of one. I’d watch my friends perform, congratulate them, whilst wishing that I had dared to audition. Wishing that I too was walking out of the Black Box to a crowd of proud friends and family.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers was my last chance. My last chance to be a part of a production, but more importantly, my last chance to stop letting fear dictate my life. Fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of not being enough. And so, I auditioned.
I remember holding hands with my castmates, facing the enthusiastic applause of the audience, and bowing. I remember the feeling of stage lights on my face, and how my muscles stretched from what might have been the widest smile I have ever given
Being a part of the production taught me that there is power in tenacity, collaboration and respect. It taught me that there are fewer things more rewarding than seeing your ideas come to life. It taught me that my courage and passion is greater than my fear. It taught me perhaps the most important lesson of my life. That I am enough.
And so I thank the drama studios, the black box and theatre, where I still see ghosts of my timid, insecure self, for guiding me throughout my adolescence. For the laughter, the tears and the confidence.