Public Obscenities makes use of some familiar tropes: a young man returns to the country of his heritage, images hidden away are revealed, someone who refuses a calling ascends to it, things that are thought of as authentic are perhaps not so. Chowdhury’s unique spin is that the locale is half a world away, in Kolkata, and big chunks of the dialogue are in Bangla.
Our traveler is Choton (the energetic Abrar Haque), who is accompanied by his boyfriend Raheem (Jakeem Dante Powell). While Choton gads about, interviewing citizens about language and marginalized communities in pursuit of an ill-conceived dissertation research project, Raheem quietly (perhaps too quietly) stays closer to Choton’s family home, making tender portraits with a disused twin-lens reflex camera. We’re reminded that the TLR can achieve intimate results because the photographer can maintain eye contact with the subject—or the subject might be unaware that a photograph is being made—as masters of the technology like Vivian Maier showed. Unfortunately, locked-down Rakeem, the character who accepts his calling, never really shows us what’s going on with him, which is perhaps a fault of writing, direction (Chowdhury directs his own script), or acting.
Golam Sarwar Harun, as Jitesh, one of Choton’s uncles, comes off best. Speaking little English, Jitesh quietly deals with the flurry of activity that has appeared in his house; he is encouraged to sing a lovely song that had Bangla-speakers in the audience audibly marking time with him.
Peiyi Wong’s effective unit set (Choton’s family home, well-lived-in right down to the slightly wobbly ceiling fan) accommodates subtitle projections; flavorful sound design by Tei Blow is there when we need it.
- Public Obscenities, written and directed by Shayok Misha Chowdhury, Woolly Mammoth Theater Company with co-presenter Theater for a New Audience, Washington