Priyanka Shetty’s play The Elephant in the Room (TEITR), playing at 59E59 until July 24, explores the challenges of diversity while rooting them in the shared identity of human experience. Elephant comes highly recommended, having won Broadway World awards in both 2019 and 2020, and playing to standing-room only crowds at the Kennedy Center. Its New York premiere delivers exactly as promised, with a hilarious, intimate, and honest portrayal of what it’s like to balance one’s identity.
As a one-woman show, the play feels like a witness to someone’s internal monologue. We hear doubts, excitement, long-treasured memories, and many laugh-out-loud moments of pure hilarity. Set as it is in the hour before the play itself, it’s immersive and manages to avoid being a meta-narrative. Instead, we hear about the things that we all share as human beings: struggles with competing desires, deep loves, friendships, bonds within family units that both take and give. It’s this shared humanity that presents the play’s reckoning with race as so obviously wrong. Priyanka’s experience touches on things specific and universal, and framing her experience growing up in India in a way that feels familiar to an American crowd takes an awareness of shared humanity. With those shared realities, the challenges she faced trying to gain acceptance as an Indian woman, as an actor, or as a family member highlight the wrongness of ostracization. Elephant shows us how easy it is to embrace similarities, and how wrong it is to divide based on difference.
It was a treasure to hear jokes about things I don’t know, everything from hard metal festivals to choosing to pursue acting as a career to having an Indian auntie’s commentary on, well, everything. Watching TEITR was a vivid and joyful experience that is relevant to everyone, and will feel familiar even though it is one woman’s unique story. The framing of the play (a clever device using tarot cards) helped move the conversation along, weaving its different thoughts into a full statement. It never felt as if the play stayed in one thought too long, although at times--when she was discussing tokenism, for example--I wished she could have stayed and offered more.
There were some stutters: a joke about Americans not knowing how to jaywalk did not land on a New York stage, in a city where jaywalking is just walking. That being said, it is healthy for Americans to see themselves through the eyes of others, instead of demanding to be seen as themselves--especially when those views differ. More substantively, I could not help wondering what came after this play. Finally, a conversation is being had that skillfully celebrates similarity while also highlighting difference and mourning division. What comes after? I think the arts have a role to play in showing what a healthy community could be, and in Elephant I only saw what currently is. It’s not Priyanka’s job to show us this, of course, but there is an opportunity to explore the “so what.” Once we see, recognize, and celebrate diversity, what comes after? I hope that the third play in this triptych will make an attempt to explore that. Either way, whatever Priyanka does next, I plan to go see.
Written and performed by Priyanka Shetty and directed by Theresa M. Davis, 'The Elephant in the Room' runs through July 24 at 59E59 Theatres. For tickets and more info, see below: