Priscila Uppal’s first play surreal, comedic tale of family

close up of Priscila Uppal

Dark, emotional, humorous – these are the markings of every good family, are they not? It is certainly the material York English Professor and poet Priscila Uppal returns to often, this time in her first play.

As part of Factory Wired: A Festival of New Work in Progress, a public reading of Uppal’s full-length feature play, Six Essential Questions, will take Priscila Uppalplace Saturday, June 9 at 8pm in Factory Theatre’s studio theatre, 125 Bathurst Street, Toronto. It is a way to get crucial feedback on the play and what is working or not, she says.

Priscila Uppal

Based on the poem – “I’m Afraid of Brazilians or Visiting the Ancestral Homeland is Not the Great Ethnic Experience Promised by Other Memoirs” – from her 2007 Griffin Poetry Prize nominated collection, Ontological Necessities, the play explores Uppal’s real life reunion with the mother that left her, her brother and father some two decades earlier.

It wasn’t the fuzzy, joy-filled reunion one would have imagined. “Finding my estranged mother after 20 years and visiting that whole side of the family was a traumatizing and alienating experience for me,” says Uppal.

The play takes that to a surreal level, achieving a darkly gripping and comedic portrayal of “our conflicted emotions of what family is” and creating an imaginative space where four characters explore a “huge range of emotions”, dark places and even darker humour. “It’s a carnival of the mind on stage,” she says.

With the well-known Iris Turcott at Factory Theatre as the dramaturge, the workshop cast for Six Essential Questions consists of Nicola Cavendish (Grandmother), Anusree Roy (Renata), Elizabeth Saunders (Mother) and Martin Julien (Doctor Garbage). The characters encompass a runaway mother, an estranged daughter, an undead grandmother and a semi-invisible uncle – only Renata can see him.

It begins on stage with a purse containing a plane ticket dropping from the sky with the trapped, long-forgotten voice of the main character’s mother singing a lullaby, “urging her to travel to her ancestral homeland for an overdue family reunion.” Unlike Uppal’s actual reunion, the play embodies “much more of a dream space,” although “it is truthful emotionally of my trip to Brazil,” she says.

As someone who attends the theatre weekly and has great admiration for the art form, Uppal says it was only a matter of time before she dipped her quill into that pot.

Uppal also has a forthcoming memoir, Projection, to be published by Thomas Allen, which charts the two weeks she spent in Brazil with her mother and the Brazilian side of the family, using art as a way to explore varying approaches to life.

Among Uppal’s publications are eight collections of poetry, including Traumatology (2010), Successful Tragedies: Poems 1998-2010 (Bloodaxe Books) and Winter Sport: Poems; the critically-acclaimed novels The Divine Economy of Salvation (2002) and To Whom It May Concern (2009); and the study We Are What We Mourn: The Contemporary English-Canadian Elegy (2009). She was the first-ever poet-in-residence for Canadian Athletes Now during the 2010 Vancouver Olympic and Paralympic games, as well as the Roger’s Cup Tennis Tournament in 2011. She will be resuming her position for the 2012 London Summer Olympics and Paralympics.

For more information, visit the Factory Theatre website.

By Sandra McLean, YFile deputy editor