Public Obscenities at Woolly Mammoth.
0 6 min 3 mths

In playwright Shayok Misha Chowdhury’s Public Obscenities, I feel seen. 

As a Bengali American myself, what I felt throughout the entire performance was an intense sense of familiarity. 

Public Obscenities is about a Bengali American man who travels to Kolkata in West Bengal, India, with his non-Bengali boyfriend to visit family and study queer vernacular. 

I expected that a show titled Public Obscenities would center around the challenges of a queer couple visiting a very traditional culture. Instead, Public Obscenities does not have a central plot, and instead illustrates a slice of life where we hang out with the main characters who make certain (self) discoveries along the way. 

Golam Sarwar Harun (left) and Jakeem Dante Powell (right) in Public Obscenities.
Golam Sarwar Harun (left) and Jakeem Dante Powell (right) in Public Obscenities.

The main character, Choton, (played by Abrar Haque) is a Bengali American who travels to Kolkata to visit his aunt and uncle and conduct research for his PhD. Choton is accompanied by his boyfriend, Raheem, (played by Jakeem Dante Powell) who explores Kolkata through the lens of an old camera.

Originality: 9/10 (What’s a 10? Hadestown)

I have never seen or watched such an accurate description of Bengali daily life. The familiarity was almost uncanny throughout. In the mannerisms of the characters I saw reflected all my relatives and family friends. It was in the way Pishimoni (the aunt played by Gargi Mukherjee) welcomed Raheem at the dinner table and obsessed over his love of fish. And the way Pishe (the uncle played by Debashis Roy Chowdury) spent his days playing on his computer, always present, but never fully engaged. 

I was surprised that a significant portion of the play was spoken in Bengali. There are subtitles for most of the performance, except for at the beginning, where the deliberate absence of subtitles created a sense of being an outsider. This had the effect of creating empathy for Raheem who had just followed his boyfriend across the world into a foreign city and household. 

Timeliness: 8/10 (What’s a 10? Merchant of Venice)

Like the characters mentioned at the beginning of the performance, Bengalis are known for highbrow arts, such as the works of Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray. In contrast, Public Obscenities strives to create meaning from the mundane, the everyday pieces of life from which families and communities are made. 

The structure of Chowdury’s Public Obscenities is a lot like Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, each archiving a snapshot of daily life.

Over the course of the performance connections across different generations and identities are revealed in subtle ways. Choton’s grandfather, “dadu,” is the node for all characters, even though his presence is marked only by his portrait on the wall. Choton grew up being told to be more like his grandfather, because Dadu was studious and worked hard; in Kolkata Choton discovers a version of his grandfather that is coquettish and in the final scenes we see Choton find confidence by channeling that version of his grandfather. In contrast, Pishimoni and Pishe seem trapped in the legacy of Dadu, unable to make their own paths in life. 

Technical Execution: 8/10 (What’s a 10? Pixel)

The show leaned on digital projections to create transitions between scenes. The projections included snapshots from Raheem’s camera or the virtual conversation Pishe was having with his international pen pal. The video and projection design by Johnny Moreno was executed fairly seamlessly. 

My main critique of the performance was that it was three hours long and didn’t need to be. The slow pacing was intentional, but the many vignettes seemed extraneous and hard to keep track of. 

Fun/Engaging: 7/10 (What’s a 10? Six)

This performance is only as powerful as the meaning the theater goer makes from it. Every audience member will walk away with a different interpretation of the story. It requires a certain mindset for a theater goer to be prepared for a show both of that length and that style. 

Would I recommend this show? If you’re Bengali, then yes, if just to see a piece of yourself. For others, I would recommend this performance if you are looking for a show that challenges you to find meaning and connection. 

Final Grade: B

Public Obscenities plays at Woolly Mammoth (641 D ST. NW) through December 23, 2023. Tickets start at $34 and are available at https://www.woollymammoth.net/productions/public-obscenities/, by phone at (202) 393-3939, and via email at [email protected].    

CONTENT TRANSPARENCY: The play includes profanity and sexual content. The production also includes theatrical oral sex and masturbation.

Running Time: 3 hours with a brief intermission 

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