It was a rainy Saturday evening when filmmaker and cookbook author Sri Rao invited me, along with a handful of other virtual guests into his Manhattan kitchen for an intimate and delightful night of cooking, storytelling and conversation. In these times of isolation, a most welcome connection, and one obviously felt by all the participants.
Bollywood Kitchen is a fantastic hybrid of a one man show and interactive cooking class currently running under the Geffen Stayhouse banner. Participants receive an impressive, beautifully decorated box filled with ingredients, spices and recipe cards a few days before your show date. You can cook along or prepare the food in advance and simply enjoy the show. Those who buy the Chef’s Table option have the opportunity to be on camera, cooking along with Rao as he interacts with you.
I honestly wasn’t sure how it would all work, but thanks to the charm of Rao, great production on the part of the Geffen Playhouse, and the intimate tone created by Arpita Mukherjee’s direction, it is truly a remarkable experience that I think we all are craving.
Rao begins by creating a “Mumbai Mule”, giving a little “Indian kick” to the traditional Moscow cocktail that sets the jovial tone of the proceedings. Trust, it was delicious! Those not cooking along can also enjoy the Indian popcorn with their cocktail.
We toasted, as Rao adorably cheered, “to Kamala Auntie coming into the White House!” He then begins to explain the origins of his Bollywood Kitchen cookbook; growing up as the only Indian boy in the entire town of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, being bullied and having no friends, his saving grace was enjoying his mother’s Indian dinners each evening and watching a Bollywood movie together on the family’s brand new VCR. It transported “this skinny brown kid living in a white world to a Technicolor utopia”. It was his entrée into all things Indian, from the clothing, food and culture to learning Hindi.
As he deftly sautés the onions, adding all the colorful spices, Rao said, “this is the aroma of my entire childhood”. As the chicken curry starts to come together, Rao recounts the epic, poetic love story of his parents, from India to Pennsylvania by way of Virginia. It’s all incredibly romantic.
But Rao digs deeper and reveals the isolation, even desperation, his parents experienced in those early years of being really the first Indian immigrants anyone had seen in the American South and then as a young family in Pennsylvania.
Interspersed with the cooking and storytelling are scenes from some of Rao’s favorite Bollywood films that highlight whatever story he is telling. It’s irresistibly fun and immersive. Then Rao moves into his own often painful and traumatic childhood where he not only had to navigate his ethnicity but also his sexuality. It’s a compelling story as you watch his evolution from truncating himself as he struggles to fit into his suburban surroundings to ultimately finding his creative self and space.
Returning to the Zoom chefs who were invited to the virtual gathering, after this part of the story, it was obvious that everyone was moved, many to tears. And this is something unique to this new kind of performance; an immediate audience reaction and interaction with the actor. One guest had a very similar childhood and told Rao how much his stories resonated with him.
It’s hard to explain how special this evening was other than to say it was very close to an in-person theatrical experience, perhaps even more intimate. We began as strangers and by the end of the evening we felt like friends who had come together to create a meal and shared our humanity in the process.
Bollywood Kitchen runs on Geffen Stayhouse through March 6, 2021. Written and Performed by Sri Rao. Directed by Arpita Mukherjee. Produced in association with Hypokrit Theatre Company. Fridays and Saturdays 4p.m. and 7p.m. Pacific Time. Running Time: 75 minutes with no intermission. Tickets are $40 – $175 per household. Available by phone at 310-208-2028 or online at www.geffenplayhouse.org