A Taste of Guyanese Culture
Musical will be staged at Indo-Caribbean Kitchrie Festival
By Rachel Dornhelm
Stabroek News
June 11, 2003

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One emigre community in Queens plans to grapple with its Americanization by using the tools of song, dance and comedic hijinx. They come together this weekend when an original musical, "Chakay-Mekin Match" (the English translation is simply "Match Making"), is performed at Richmond Hill High School by members of an ad-hoc troupe.

The play, written by a Richmond Hill woman, deals with a Guyanese father's struggle to relate to his three daughters - one having an arranged marriage, another rebellious, and the third too young to decide.

Taking place in the days before the arranged marriage, "Chakay" poses questions about the generation gap among recent Indo-Carribean arrivals, weaving them into a madcap plot involving mistaken identity.

Pritha Singh wrote the full-length play during January and February for the fifth annual Kitchrie Festival. The weekend festival celebrates the neighborhood's Indo-Caribbeans with the help of cultural performances and home-style cooking (kitchrie is a stew made with rice and peas).

"I became a playwright out of a need to write stuff for and about the community," said Singh, a former advertising executive.

"Plays written by Afro-Caribbean people or white people about us were all these stereotypes, so the Kitchrie Festival's plays really come out of a need for us to develop these real-life characters."

Her play includes performances of Tan Sangeet, Indo-Caribbean traditional music adapted by Romanee Kalicharran, the show's music director. It is also studded with sequences of Indian classical dance, or kathak, along with other music and choreography drawn from hip-hop culture that shapes the music, dance and fashion tastes of young emigres.

Singh said the topics of Americanization and its often volatile impact on traditional family dynamics are familiar themes in the community. Over the past 20 years, 300,000 Caribbeans of Indian descent have moved to the tri-state area. This migration is the group's second-largest, historically speaking. In the late 1800s, many of their ancestors left India as indentured servants to work on sugar plantations in Guyana, Trinidad and Surinam.

Aftab Karimullah of Ozone Park plays the father in the production. He said one of the main concerns of the community right now is a father's influence over his family in an urban environment.

Karimullah, a computer engineer whose 14-year-old daughter, Ali, also appears in "Chakay," said that the large family networks that are common in rural areas are uncommon in a big city, putting more of an onus on parents. "Added to the father's burden is the fact that they have to restart their lives," he said. "They're preoccupied with paying the bills or building a business, and sometimes it takes away from the time that's necessary for proper parenting."

Pritha Singh said she hopes the lessons on navigating generational divides are not lost on parents and children, but she said the Kitchrie Festival's plays are not just about the message; they are also meant to give Indo-Caribbeans who are interested in acting and dancing the opportunity to learn about theater arts.

Guyanese-born Kumari Singh (not related to Pritha) plays the daughter rebelling against an arranged marriage. At 23, she has long had an interest in acting and modeling, but the appropriate parts and opportunities never presented themselves.

"I learned a lot about acting when it comes to doing a play," said Kumari Singh, of Washington Heights. "Everything from doing the lights to what it's like backstage to sets to blocking, to learning how to work off of other people."

Rita Baboolal of Astoria is another first-time actor in the cast. Originally from Trinidad, she said she has enjoyed the experience. Baboolal said she found it funny that she had to work to strengthen her fading Trinidadian accent. She said all the time she put into the play was worth it.

"As parents, we've got to remind our kids that they can't just separate from their Indian culture," said Baboolal, who has four children ages 22 to 30 and one grandchild. "It's there, and we have to pull it up in them sometimes."

Some of the actors have prior experience on the stage. Rabindra Singh, 25, of Queens Village, has a leading male role in "Chakay"; he has an acting degree from New York University. After graduating a few years ago, he got some acting jobs but now works at Met Life as a salesman. He happened to see last year's main Kitchrie original play and resolved to audition this year.

"I thought, what the heck," said Singh. "West Indians, it's my culture, why don't I get involved? I can afford the time, so here I am."

Pritha Singh said she hopes that the audience is as enthused about watching the play as the cast has been about producing it. The point of the festival, after all, is to bring people of all ages together, like a feast.

"It's like we are making kitchrie and then dishing it out to the community," she said.

The Rajkumari Cultural Center's Kitchrie Festival presents "Chakay- Mekin Match" June 14 and 15 at 6 p.m. at Richmond Hill High School, 89-30 114th St. Tickets are $15 in advance, $20 at the door, and half-price for children age 10 and younger. For details and group reservations, call 718-846-5431.

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