Entertainment » Theatre

Mesma Belsaré on 'When January Feels Like Summer'

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Oct 14, 2016

Mesma Belsaré is something of a Woman of All Trades: An acclaimed dancer and choreographer (The New York Times has called her work "a tour de force"), founder and director of RASA ("Re-Presenting Arts of South Asia"), an arts educator and lecturer who has held numerous residences at various colleges and universities in Massachusetts, New York, and even Laramie, Wyoming, a painter.

Another artistic avenue the India-born Belsaré purues is acting. As she noted to EDGE, her theatrical credits are somewhat extensive, including "'Gehri Dosti: five short plays with a South Asian Bent ;-)' [Harvard University and Wellesley College, Circle East, NYC (choreographer)], 'Tughlaq' (Harvard University), 'Dance Like a Man' (Triveni, New Delhi and Harvard University) and opera 'The Bandit Queen' (Holy Cross College and Boston University)." Her current role is that of a transgender character in the Underground Railway Theater's production of "When January Feels Like Summer."

The play, which runs at the Central Square Theater from Oct. 20 - Nov. 13, is set in Harlem during a remarkably warm January, and follows the lives of five individuals as they cross one another' paths. The production is directed by Benny Sato Ambush and co-stars Marc Pierre, Sanaa Kazi, Seth Hill, and David J. Curtis.

Belsaré also has a glancing connection to EDGE. Weeks before coordinating with the Central Square Theater about an interview, I was invited to dinner by a mutual friend, sometime EDGE contributor and novelist Iory Allison, who raved about another guest for the occasion: His elegant, beautiful, and talented friend Mesma -- a dancer of uncommon grace, he said, whom I would find fascinating. Due to scheduling conflicts I had to decline the invitation, but as though karma itself had intervened, the publicist at the theater subsequently inquired as to whether I might not like to interview Belsaré. When the gods speak, one is better off by listening; I was all too pleased to have a chance to chat with the talented polymath.


EDGE: You are a dancer, and the style of dance you practice is an Indian tradition called Bharatanatyam. Could you please say a few words about what this is for our readers?

Mesma Belsaré: Bharatanatyam is one of the eight classical dance forms from India. If we were to look at its name, we have Bha (from Bhava or emotion), Ra (from Raga or mood expressed through music) and Ta (from Tala or rhythm), and Natya (or the dramatic component) that form the pillars of this dance form. This art was performed as one of the rituals in temples and courts of South India in pre-colonial and even colonial times, until 1947, after which it underwent a metamorphosis and was widespread across India and now the world at large.

EDGE: How do the theatrical arts of acting and dance inform one another for you?

Mesma Belsaré: Indian Classical dances stem from a complete understanding of the art of Theatre, and that includes costuming, stage setting, lighting design, make-up, understanding color, texture, textiles, ornaments etc; it's a complete aesthetic package. A dancer ought to be skilled at convincingly depicting various characters: women, men, Gods, demigods, animals, birds etc. sometimes all of them in one performance. So one develops the skill of embodying the other, which in turn helps with acting.

That said, I specifically work on acting techniques, voice and movement to prepare myself for a given acting job. Dance on the other hand gives you an acute awareness of space and how one inhabits it, whether on stage or off.

EDGE: The play 'When January Feels Like Summer' was something of a groundbreaking work in 2009, when playwright Cori Thomas first wrote it. Given how trans issues and trans people are now in the spotlight more than ever before, does the play retain its urgency?

Mesma Belsaré: There has been a surge in trans visibility in the media in the recent past; from popular culture to political debates, issues of trans people have come to the forefront.

This change, however, still needs to catch up with the rest of the LGB movement. The play 'When January Feels Like Summer' can be seen as a wheel joining that progressive movement. We are all aware of gender non-conforming characters in film and popular media bearing the brunt of crude jokes, being vilified or meeting tragic ends, not necessarily because of their actions, but simply because of who they are. Here is a play that paints a realistic picture of a trans character, her struggles, fears, imperfections, insecurities and dreams with all the challenges of an individual inhabiting a 21st century New York City. It puts her center stage with other characters; she is no longer the comic relief or the deviant horror of the plot. She is a whole person, unapologetic and daring.

EDGE: How did you come to be involved in the play?

Mesma Belsaré: The producers were conducting auditions in Boston and NYC this past summer. I wasn't aware of it until someone reached out to me and invited me to come in for an audition. I was glad I did; I feel very fortunate to be working with an extraordinary team of colleagues, my director, the producers, the designers and the entire team at the Central Square Theater. The audience is in for a rare treat. This play has made us laugh, weep, be silly and be ourselves in the most genuine way possible during rehearsals. We cannot wait to share it with our audience.

EDGE: You portray a character named Ishan who transitions during the course of the play, becoming Indira. What's involved in depicting that transition, in terms of costuming, makeup, affect, body language, and so on?

Mesma Belsaré: Ishan/Indira is an endearing, perplexing, vivacious, courageous and perhaps even a vexing character. It was important to us that she be portrayed as realistically as possible; sans frills and flamboyance that is often tagged on to trans women. Like cis-gender individuals, no two trans women are alike. Leslie Held, our costume designer is conscientious about creating a look that expresses Indira (and Ishan) in all her shades, so to speak. It is important to note that Indira is in "costume" when she appears as "Ishan" on stage, i.e. she is putting on an act in male clothes. It is when she sheds that mantle that is she truly herself.

That said, the "Ishan" look is more challenging; it involves a long process of wearing a wig, flattening curves and straitjacketing as much as possible, not to mention those men's business shoes! The inner work as an actor involves relating to the dilemma of living a dual life, so much so that it is palpable on stage. My job as an actor is to bring imagination and skill to the script and the character that the playwright has created. But it is not done just by me: everyone from my director Benny Sato Ambush, co-actors, designers and of course, the playwright Cori Thomas are a part of this process. Indira's transition registers not just by what she does or wears, but also by how others in the play receive her.

EDGE: Text at the Central Square Theater's website tells the reader that in the play, 'the Hindu God Ganesh presides over the destinies of five people on paths of self-discovery and transformation as their disparate lives intersect.' How does Ganesh figure into the play? Is he a patron of trans individuals?

Mesma Belsaré: Ganesh is not a patron god of trans individuals. He is the God of new beginnings, the remover of obstacles. He is the wise one and at work when you least expect him. He is the first deity to be worshiped in any given Hindu ritual, including during a dance performance on stage! His presence in this play is poignant because each character is striving to start anew, to overcome both internal and external obstacles; and they have only their wisdom to go by. In the play Indira actively calls on Ganesh to remove 'all hindrances to my happiness.' In a way, her plea is on behalf of every other character.

EDGE: On a strictly personal note, I find it delightful you've had a residency at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. I lived in Wyoming for many years, including a brief spell in Laramie, and I loved the great spaces of that state. How did you like that part of the American West?

Mesma Belsaré: It was exciting, as I had never been to Wyoming. I absolutely loved the terrain. I think the American landscape is very beautiful, and I mean the land that is untouched by human inhabitation. There is a quality of vastness even in the sky that is unique. It fed my appetite to experience more of those expansive vistas.

But the most memorable was the graciousness with which they received my two hour long solo concert. An artiste needs sensitive, receptive audience, which they were.

EDGE: Bringing the conversation back to Boston, you have some connection to MASALA (the Massachusetts South Asian Lambda Association). Could you say a little about what this organization is and what it does?

Mesma Belsaré: MASALA started in Boston in the '90s, about a decade before I came to this city, by a group of individuals who wanted to create a community specifically for South Asian LGBTQ people. The group is a mix of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan members. Activities include monthly potlucks, cultural events, discussion groups and social outings.

More importantly, the group occasionally functions as a safe space for family members of LGBTQ South Asians to meet and openly talk about their culturally specific concerns related to coming out or being LGBTQ both in South Asia and the United States.

EDGE: Do you have a sense for how issues facing the LGBTQ community are better or worse in the United States versus in India?

Mesma Belsaré: Quite honestly I don't feel well informed to comment on it, especially because it has been a while since I traveled to India. The one major difference is that the LGBTQ movement in India is not as politicized as it is in the U.S. There have been many political changes in the recent past, and Indian society at large is changing rapidly; most of the latter has to do with market economy taking over in the last 10-15 years.

That said, it is safe to assume that life for trans individuals is tough in both countries. Hate crimes against trans women are on the rise both in India and in the U.S. There are many activists in India striving to raise awareness about these issues. I know progress is being made. But it's slow. The quest for acceptance and/or assimilation are very hard battles to fight and people belonging to any minority communities know it well.


"When January Feels Like Summer" plays Oct. 20 - Nov. 13 at the Central Square Theater in Cambridge. For tickets and more information, please go to https://www.centralsquaretheater.org/shows/when-january-feels-like-summer

For more bout Mesma Belsaré please go to her website: http://www.mesmabelsare.com/#!

To read Iory Allison's interview with Mesma Belsaré please visit http://ioryallisonblog.com/category/portraits-of-interesting-people/mesma-balsare

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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