This Playwright Has Been Listening to Her Mother

While “India Pale Ale” is intensely personal for Backhaus, it’s not exactly autobiographical. It’s more about Bhira, her mother.


Scrunched up against a counter at the Punjabi Grocery & Deli, an East Village hole-in-the-wall, Jaclyn Backhaus tucked into a vegetarian lunch she had hand-picked for two: saag curry, chana paneer, pakoras and daal.

The 32-year-old Punjabi-American playwright, whose breakout “Men on Boats” was a 2015 off-Broadway hit, is very familiar with this place, as she often takes out food there for the cast of her new play, “India Pale Ale,” opening Oct. 23 at the Manhattan Theater Club.

The drama, which earned Backhaus the prestigious Horton Foote Prize, is about a Punjabi community in Wisconsin and one young woman’s quest to resist family pressure to get married. Nearing 30, Basminder “Boz” Batra (played by Shazi Raja) wants to forge her own path, which in this case means leaving her hometown and opening a bar in Madison.

“The play is a really personal exploration of essentially my story,” Backhaus explained, “but also an alternate reality.”

Speaking of which: In several scenes cast members play pirates, a loving tribute to those who sail the seas without adhering to a traditional lifestyle.

South Asian stories in American film and theater remain fairly scant; it’s often marriage tales — arranged or otherwise — that break through, whether in Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon’s Oscar nominated “The Big Sick” or 2007’s “The Namesake,” starring Kal Penn and based on the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri.

While the outlines of Backhaus’ play seem similar, it’s a departure in a few ways.

More often than not, the stories are told from a male point of view. In addition, this is a second generation story, not a first.

Basminder’s immediate family, including her parents Deepa and Sunny (Purva Bedi and Alok Tewari) were born in Wisconsin and are largely assimilated. They know their Fiona Apple; Deepa understands her daughter’s desire to leave their small town.

And while “India Pale Ale” is intensely personal for Backhaus, it’s not exactly autobiographical. It’s more about Bhira, her mother.

The playwright herself grew up in the suburbs of Phoenix, the product of an interracial marriage. Bhira is from Yuba City in Northern California and Backhaus’ father, Andrew, is a German-Catholic from New Jersey.

“My first reaction when I read it was, ‘Wow, you’ve been listening,’ ” Bhira said in a phone interview.

Backhaus’ parents never urged her to marry a Punjabi man. In fact, it was Bhira (now a novelist and English professor) who was ostracized for marrying outside the community, to a man she met in college. (Andrew works at a Tempe, Arizona-based company that specializes in high-altitude training.)

Bhira’s father was among the earliest Punjabi immigrants to the United States. Neither parent met her husband until Bhira’s mother was dying of breast cancer. Her father died 11 months later, never having explicitly forgiven her.

Bhira wanted a different experience for her own daughter.

“She always said, ‘You can do whatever you want to do. You can believe whatever you want to do. We’ll support you in that,’” Backhaus said of her mother.

Her parents encouraged her to pursue theater at New York University and never pressured her to attend engineering or medical school, a story many first generation South Asian children know well — and is winked at in the play.

She wasn’t brought up practicing Sikhism, her mother’s faith, or really any sort of religion at all. But that doesn’t mean Backhaus has fully rejected the culture of Bhira’s youth.

“As I’ve become older, there’s something that connects me to it,” Backhaus said.

She began writing plays when she was 8. An early effort was a musical starring her hamster, her little brother and, of course, herself. Her first full-length play, written as a high school senior, was about two men on sabbatical from Merrill Lynch who move to Tibet to write a novel.

“India Pale Ale” was initially set in California, where her mother grew up, with Basminder written as a middle-schooler. Backhaus eventually shelved the project after 10 pages.

Years later, in 2017, Backhaus started over, partially inspired by President Donald Trump signing an executive order banning travel from several majority-Muslim countries. She wrote a full-length draft in just a week on a retreat with other playwrights.

The play was now set in Wisconsin, and a plot element was added, inspired by the 2012 shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, that killed six.

The shooting viscerally impacted Bhira, who wrote a New York Times op-ed in the aftermath. “I saw the faces of my own brothers and sisters, aunties and uncles, contorted with terror,” she wrote.

Backhaus said she chose to include it because of another childhood memory: The murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh gas station owner, just days after Sept. 11 in Mesa, Arizona, near where she grew up.

“That underbelly of fear and disgust at how members of the same country can turn on each other was shocking,” she recalled.

As for those pirates, Backhaus said she is drawn to figures who sail their own way. (“Men on Boats” had women playing the explorers of the title.) Remind you of anyone?

“It’s a pirate attitude that got my mom to where she is,” Backhaus said. “It’s a pirate attitude that a lot of people with dreams face when they’re trying to attain them.”

Backhaus isn’t quite the buccaneer. She did go off on her own — but with the approval of her family. She and her husband, Andrew Scoville, a theater director, are raising a 2-year-old in Ridgewood, Queens.

But she’s tried to keep up some Punjabi customs, especially when it comes to food. Her mother regularly cooked chicken curry, aloo gobi and roti for the family. Last Christmas season, Backhaus prepared a big pot of lamb curry, saffron rice and aloo gobi for her own brood.

Her mother flew across the country to be there — and to take the pressure off.

“We didn’t make the roti,” Backhaus reported. “I said, ‘We’re making roti!’ She was like, ‘No, it’s too much work. You don’t want to stress out.’”

c.2018 New York Times News Service

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