In my semester abroad in New Zealand, I had the pleasure and honor to be a part of a class that took an incredibly different and important and text and portray it in a creative and different way. We presented key scenes from 'Harvest' by Manjula Padmanabhan . This play takes place in the future in a society where the trade of organs to rich Westerners is seen as the only way out of poverty for people living in third world countries. This award-winning play about colonization, poverty, risk, vanity, and deception offers extraordinarily powerful lessons for our time.
by Manjula Padmanabhan
I played "Ginni" - the token rich westerner who is buying the character "Om"'s organs - and focused a lot on the issue of human inequality when working doing character work. The character of Ginni/Virgil is used to show the drastic inequalities between the rich American with endless options and the poor, third-world citizen left with none. Playing this role was an incredible learning experience for me as I had to be really meticulous and exact in my actions to portray such a powerful and two-faced character. (I was the only American in the class - everyone else was native to New Zealand - so I already had the accent!)
For our production, we made a lot of directorial choices in order to develop and illustrate this idea and chose to make Ginni’s character over the top and very powerful. I wore red high-heels that immediately lifted my status (and height) above the family. I also wore a full face of makeup with my hair all done up and bright red nails; distinguishing myself from the other characters and showing an air of power and wealth. Just the very way I held myself showed an unequal level of confidence and strength contrasting Ginni with the family. Ginni is the characterture of power and wealth while Om takes the role of the weak, poor, and easily manipulated character.
Padmanabhan’s use of dialogue was also quite important when it came to developing a huge sense of inequality between the characters. Ginni’s controlling, uncaring, and infantilizing way of talking to the members of the family constantly reminds the family and the audience of her social and economic status. For example, in our production Ginni says “I know you can’t help it, it’s part of your culture. It’s what your people do…” At this point Om has stood up and is trying to talk to Ginni and as I say “your people” I essentially push him back down onto the floor, below me “where he belongs”. This motion and condescending use of “your people” puts Om back in his place and he stays seated or crouched down for the rest of the scene and I tower over the other characters with my height and stature. Throughout the show the way that Ginny speaks to the family is in huge contrast to the way that Om talks when Ginni is around which is with a fleeting, restrained, nervous energy as he tries to say what he thinks will please Ginni.
In the end, it all comes down to action and what the characters will do in order to achieve their goals. Ginni/Virgil take many steps towards their goal of gaining complete control over Om and his family in order to find immortality. Ginni installs a great deal of high-tech equipment in the Praycash household. The purpose of these devices is “to alert us to the crucial role that technology plays in both seducing and policing the third-world donors into submission.” (Pravinchandra) The contact module, a communication device, especially establishes huge inequalities of power. Ginni is the only one who can control it, and the audience finds out later that it is always on and therefore she is always watching and servailing them. Ginni has complete control because of this gadget and therefore is immediately much more powerful. The very fact that Ginni has the means to supply the family with this kind of technology and forces them to use it unwillingly reminds us yet again how incredibly different her life is compared to the family’s. This new technology at once empowers Ginni while disempowering the other characters. For example, “Ma is mystified to the point of disempowerment by the technology she so eagerly embraced. As she settles into her SuperDeluxe VideoCouch ... Ma’s retreat from biosocial space into the media-saturated oblivion of 750 video channels from around the world represents only a slightly more palatable future than her sons’ eventual disappearance into the abyss of the organ bazaar.” (Gilbert pg 129) On the other side, Om takes drastic action to try and provide for himself and his family. He succumbs to literally selling his own body, and the life that he is used to, attempting to shrink the level of inequality between himself and those like Ginni.
The show as a whole does a beautiful and bone-chilling job of illustrating the way moral character bends under the pressures of human inequality, from both the perspective of the privileged and the deprived. Padmanabhan does this in a pretty “in your face” way yet set in a futuristic, sci-fi way so it removes the audience from the reality of it all. This allows the audience to grasp the weight of the seriousness of this topic without causing them to get too defensive and immediately move to reject what is in front of them.
To lean into this idea, we integrated creative uses of media and imaginative ways of showing interactions in our production such as video calls. In the snippet of a rehearsal below, we show Ginni video-calling Om and his family by placing Ginni is the space while using a bright light to represent a camera. This clip serves as a good example of the concepts mentioned above that I worked to integrate into my character and performance.
Rehearsal filmed by Courtney Spicer