This guest post was written by the London based playwright Beverly Andrews – author of the play Baghdad Othello which received a rehearsed reading at the Tricycle Theatre. Andrews attended The 8th Women Playwright’s Conference held in Mumbai, India, from 1st to 7th November 2009 under the joint auspices of Stree Mukti Sanghatana (SMS) and the Academy of Theatre Arts, University of Mumbai.

Mumbai this month saw the conveying of the 8th International Women Playwright’s International Conference. The event brought together many of the leading female playwrights, directors, actors and producers from around the world. The conference not only highlighted the outstanding contribution made by women from around the world to theatre but also by being held only a year on from the Mumbai massacres, beautifully illustrated theatre’s capacity to celebrate both liberty and tolerance (two of the themes for this year’s festival) and transcend cultural and religious divisions.

The event’s main convener was the indomitable Jyoti Mhapsekar, a long-standing member of the WPI and a passionate advocate for women’s participation in theatre. A tiny, smiling but no-nonsense woman, Mhapsekar has had a long, prestigious career in theatre. Mhapsekar originally trained has a librarian in India before quickly turning her attention to theatre. Her first play Mulagi Zali Ho (Girl is born) was translated into eight Indian languages. Mhapsekar went on to write two short films on the rights of women and is the recipient of several awards for her contribution to the women’s movement in India. A former member of the executive committee for the WPI, Mhaspsekar has sought to combine her work in theatre with her political activism. She was awarded the Asoki Award for her work on behalf of the waste pickers in Mumbai. Mhapsekar was assisted in organising this year’s conference by Professor Waman Kendra, director of the Academy of Theatre Arts in Mumbai as well as Sushama Deshpande, an acclaimed actress, playwright, theatre director and social activist.

Despite the fact that this month marked the anniversary of that terrible attack on the city, fears that international delegates would not attend turned out to be unfounded and close to 100 delegates from around the world came. Female writers, directors and performers from countries as far afield as Canada, the US, Italy, Norway, Sweden, Indonesia and the Philippines with a particularly large delegation from Australia were there in force. Close to fifty play-readings were staged, including a powerful depiction of the unlawful execution in America’s rural south of an innocent African-American woman in Who will Sing for Lena by Liddel Janice; a contemporary interpretation of the life of one of China’s little known female rulers in Daughter of Heaven by Melissa Tien; and a playful look at both the problem of assimilation and a love of tango in Bettina Gracias’ charming Singh Tangos.

There was also the contribution of the first and so far only delegate from worn torn Afghanistan, Lia Denae. Her play Children of the Far, Far Away looked at the thorny issue of third world adoption by wealthy childless American couples. Lia’s piece sparked a lively debate among delegates with some questioning the absence in the piece of a more prominent role for the woman who ultimately gives up her child. But I feel this missed the point since the play is told from the point of view of the American woman organising the adoption and her growing disenchantment with the entire process. Seen in this light, I felt that the focus of the piece was just right.

Lia went on to speak briefly about her life as a drama teacher in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital. She cited all too clear evidence of the broken promises made by Western governments to assist in the reconstruction shattered roads, crumbling buildings and an erratic electricity network – problems all too common, all too ongoing. She also cited the ever growing corruption which has sadly gripped the country and yet she was optimistic about Afghanistan’s future: “when I see the determination on the faces of the girls I teach there I guess I can’t help but be hopeful”.

Alongside the play-readings seminars and panel discussions were also held. Some of the panel discussions directly highlighted political and social challenges women face in creating theatre; issues that women face in their daily lives around the world, be it access to clean water, education, or the growing problem of human trafficking as well as the general dis-empowerment of women in poorer countries.

Each evening culminated in outstanding performances by some of India’s most celebrated theatre practitioners. One of my personal favourites was Khatijabai of Karmal Terrace which looked at the life of an Indian woman who marries into a powerful Indian family and gradually manoeuvres to find herself at its very centre only to have to confront the affects that the ever changing world has on her children.

The conference concluded with a stunning performance of Miracle in Rwanda, written and performed by Leslie Lewis Sword. The piece tells the true story of Immaculee Iiibagiz who survived the Rwanda genocide and who heroically somehow managed to forgive the man responsible for the deaths of her entire family. The piece highlighted theatre’s capacity to address important world issues and provided a fitting end to an inspiring event.

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