By Mimi Sells
March 30, 2022
Joyful, raucous, shimmering are not words that come to mind when the topic is ethnic identity and cultural appropriation. However, these themes are the power source for the vibrant world premiere of Bhangin’ It at the La Jolla Playhouse (LJP).
While the official opening night was March 20, we saw a preview a week earlier when not all the words, actions and scenes were locked down. Still, that didn’t matter a whit! Bhangin’ It is a musical celebrating South Asian culture as represented by Bhangra, a Punjab folk dance style that has garnered an international following and global competitions. In this musical focusing on a collegiate Bhangra dance competition, we learn more about the culture and nuances of Indian life.
Set at East Lansing University in Michigan, the story revolves around Mary, a mixed-race Asian student who wants to bring innovative moves to her traditional Bhangra Dance Team as they head to national finals. Meeting resistance, Mary quits the team and starts her own ragtag band of Bhangra enthusiasts of varying ethnic identities and dance skills. And therein lies the genius, the conflict and confluence of ideas of Bhangin’ It.
Figuring out who you are is part of the universal passage of the young. But the engaging, headstrong Mary encapsulates that uncertainty in spades. She is half white, half Indian and yet often feels less than either identity. Through vivid dance scenes, hip hop-paced lyrics and stylized sets, the story powers through her journey in the company of this exuberant and mostly young cast.
From the moment Bhangin’ It starts, the audience is immersed in Indian culture from the kaleidoscopic lighting, scents of spices and traditional music to the saturated colors of the minimalist stage sets, the audience experiences a culture come alive. Some of my favorite scenes take place in the Samosa Hut, a restaurant run by its Imposing owner/performer Rekha who becomes a reluctant guide for Mary’s troupe.
While this show is clearly headed to future Broadway success, its genesis was years in the writing and more years in the creating, including deep roots at the La Jolla Playhouse.
Writers Mike Lew and his wife Rehana Lew Mirza were artists-in-residence at LJP in 2018-19 where they first workshopped their nascent storyline with their music and lyric partners Sam Willmott and Deep Singh.
In the show ‘s handbill, Rehana describes her long fascination with collegiate bhangra competitions that led to her first writing this screenplay. When she met—and later married—Mike, another aspiring playwright, she shared her story, and they began collaborating on this passion project.
Bhangin’ It is a musical but it’s also a comedy and creative fusion of theatrical styles. Here’s how composer Sam Elliott described it: “What I love most about this show is it’s truly a love letter to an ‘old-fashioned’ musical-comedy. It’s also a contemporary, relevant, thought- provoking piece.”
Delayed two years by Covid, Bhangin’ It is the first new musical production at LJP since 2019. But the delay has not only sharpened the production but has also made it more timely in our current conversations over cultural appropriation and racial identity in many spheres of life. Who gets to define us? How do we respect our past and traditions and yet move forward as individuals and as a culture? These themes are explored in resplendent style by this engaging cast.
Mary is played by Ari Afsar, a San Diego native with a Sony album, her own Broadway bound musical and many tv and movie credits to her name. Ari is also– like her character–biracial. In fact, in her web bio, Ari writes “I am a proud Bangladeshi and a proud American.” Further, just like Bhangin’ It’s heroine, she says “I’ve been ashamed of who I am for a lot of my life and didn’t even know it. I still don’t quite have it figured out, but I sure am damn closer to feeling comfortable in my skin.”
We all left the theater wanting to dance, to see more Bhangra and to talk about the issues so compellingly explored. As the LJP website says, Bhangin’It asks all of us to “Find your beat. Find your team. Find yourself.” If you find yourself wanting to dance more in your own life, blame this exciting new musical.