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An important new play sheds light on the pervasiveness of sexual abuse in South Asia and across the world.

Priyanka Bose, Poorna Jagannathan, Rukhsar Kabir, Japjit Kaur, Ankur Vikal, Sneha Jawale, and Pamela Sinha in Nirbhaya, written and directed by Yaël Farber, at Culture Project's Lynn Redgrave Theater.
(© Timmy Blupe)

The 2012 Delhi gang rape that shocked India and led to nationwide street protests is an admittedly difficult subject to theatricalize. Certainly, many theatergoers will opt to avoid this gruesome subject all together. Writer-director Yaël Farber seems to have understood this in creating Nibhaya, her new play now making its North American premiere at Culture Project. Rather than softening the issue for those who were never going to attend anyway, she lays the horrible details bare onstage. The result is the most harrowing theatrical experience currently in New York.

This probably won't surprise anyone who saw the 2012 run of Farber's Mies Julie, an adaptation of Strindberg set in Farber's native South Africa. Nirbhaya is just as fearless and gut-wrenching as that production, but with the added unsettling knowledge that we're not just witnessing made-up stories.

Actually, the play is a series of true accounts of rape and abuse as told by the women who experienced it firsthand. Nirbhaya takes its name from the alias the Indian press gave Jyoti Singh Pandey as a way to protect her identity following the 2012 attack (it means "fearless"). The play re-creates the events of that night: Jyoti (Japjit Kaur) boards a bus with her friend Awindra Pratap Pandey (Ankur Vikal) after seeing a movie. The two are attacked by a gang of men and Jyoti is brutally raped.

The play diverts from Jyoti as each actress comes forward to give her own testimony. Bollywood actress Rukhsar Kabir shows in frightening detail what it is like to break into the industry under the gaze of a violent and religious father. Poorna Jagannathan and Priyanka Bose give us a sense of the ubiquity of the patriarchy by describing their silent endurance through years of abuse from older men. No one would believe the word of a 9-year-old girl over a trusted elder man. Lest we assume this is a uniquely Indian phenomenon, Pamela Sinha shares her terrifying encounter with an intruder when she was attending university in Montreal.

Somewhat cruelly for this play about the systemic devaluation of women, the best part in Nirbhaya is played by a man: Ankur Vikal portrays every male role, shifting seamlessly from bright-eyed little brothers to drooling perverted uncles. When he enters the space we instinctively feel tension. We are never quite sure if he is friend or foe, an anxiety many women feel daily in their interactions with men.

The emotional highpoint of the evening comes from Sneha Jawale, who literally wears the scars of her oppression: She suffered severe burns at the hands of her husband, who kidnapped her young son after their divorce. It's impossible not to feel something from Nirbhaya: sorrow, pity, and, more often than not, horror.

Farber's elemental direction employs sand, water, fire, and earth to tell the story. She augments the raw power of the performers' tales with simple yet specific stage pictures: judgmental aunties conspiring in a hallway, a tortured bed sheet, a bus packed like a sardine can. We always know immediately where we are and what is happening.

Oroon Das' minimalist costumes use brightly colored swathes of fabric to indicate which story is in play. The performers reverently cradle these splashes of color with the cloth taking on an almost sacred position. Without it, the actors are nameless black-clad shades, bumping into one another on a busy Delhi street.

Encouragingly, one doesn't walk away with the sense that any of these women are victims: They are survivors. Nirbhaya boldly brings their stories out of the shadows, where far too many abuse victims languish. It's a worthwhile journey, if you're willing to take it.