Bhangin’ It at the La Jolla Playhouse
“Bhangin’ It” uses the familiar story of dance team drama and a trip to the finals to explore interesting themes of cultural appropriation and belonging. The dance team is for Bhangra, a high-energy folk dance from Punjab in northern India. The central character, Mary, a senior, wants to include a short kathak solo in her last performance with the team, as a tribute to her mother. Kathak is one of the classical dance styles of India and demands years of training, similar to ballet. A fellow dancer, Preeti, is not having this. She argues that it would dilute the authenticity of their performance and she bullies Mary into quitting. Preeti is a nuisance, insisting that, as the only Punjabi on the team, she gets to decide what is Bhangra and what isn’t. Her song, “Stamp It Out”, makes the point that it can be disrespectful to a tradition to introduce inauthentic elements. Who would stand for the prima ballerina in “Giselle” doing a break dance solo. Preeti is annoying, but has a point.
Mary doesn’t have the confidence to challenge her. Mary is only half desi (a term of a Indian person). She worries she isn’t Indian enough to perform Indian dances. She performs a touching and topical duet “Toledo” about whether ethnic identity is the same a cultural identity. Her friend, who is of Dominican Republic heritage, but hales from Toledo, expresses his discomfort around his “real” Dominican friends. He doesn’t speak Spanish well and struggles to connect with his Dominican abuela, who doesn’t speak English.
Should a non-Irish person learn Irish step dancing? Can a Korean-American wear a dashiki at a wedding of Black friends? Is a Native American tribe right to exclude someone who speaks the language, grew up in the community, but is only a tiny fraction by bloodline? These are all contemporary and relevant topics in American life that relate to the themes in “Bhangin’ It”.
Despite these more serious ideas, “Bhangin’ It” is a very fun show. There is plenty of dancing, beautiful costumes and jokes. A few jokes require some familiarity with Indian culture to appreciate: when one character brags about watching ten hours of Indian movies, the other character complains that that is only two movies (Indian movies are notoriously long).
The show was reviewed by The New York Times, a indication of the quality of the material. The performances are excellent. The singers easily made it to the back row with fine articulation. Every word was clear. This show is Broadway ready!