Sexual violence stripped of its silent veneer in new play

Drawn from international headlines, Nirbhaya asks audiences to look deep into themselves.

This article was originally featured in the November 2015 issue of Vancouver magazine.Award-winning actor Poorna Jagannathan talks about how she came to be the producer of Nirbhaya, a play devised and directed by Yaël Farber in response to the brutal rape and death of a woman on a bus in Delhi in 2012. “It’s so hard to hypothesize about why Jyoti Singh Pandey’s rape and death was a tipping point for India, for the world, and for me. But I can tell you that the morning after, when we woke up as a nation to the brutal news, we felt broken and outraged.”Like many women, I’ve experienced my share of sexual violence and chose to stay silent about almost all of it. But when that young woman stepped on that bus, things changed for me. I realized the silence that I had kept—and that we keep as a society—makes us deeply complicit in manifesting this sort of violence. What happened on that bus wasn’t an anomaly; it was the explosive culmination of something that happens to women every day: we get touched, groped, molested, abused.”Yaël Farber and I were friends on Facebook, and I could see she was devastated by news of the rape—it felt personal to her. I asked her to come to India to create a work that would harness the silence being ripped apart by women speaking up; a work that would enable me to break my own silence. I knew only Yaël could create a deeply political and relevant work that was devastatingly compelling to watch.“Nirbhaya is deeply political. It’s not a confessional, and it’s certainly not therapy. It sets out to challenge the apathy and ignorance that exists about rape. I often say that people come in to the theatre to see ‘the other’—perhaps they’ve heard of an award-winning play from India, or they’ve heard it’s about survivors and it’s deeply moving. But halfway through Nirbhaya, they meet themselves. The audience becomes accountable to their own story and their truth. Even people who don’t have a story of sexual violence are forever changed. Sexual violence may not touch us all, but it affects us all.”Nirbhaya, Nov. 3 to 14York Theatre, 639 Commercial Drive, 604-251-1363