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Playwright Vishesh Abeyratne makes notes. Screenshot: GCTC/YouTube.

Introducing Vishesh Abeyratne, GCTC Playwright-in-Residence

By Eric Coates on June 2, 2021

In May 2020, as the pandemic announced that it would be settling in for an extended stay, GCTC invited local theatre artists to pitch their wares via a series of virtual meetings. Many of the staff members attended and participated in over 50 of these exchanges, during which we gained a deeper understanding of local artists’ goals and expectations, while trying to determine how GCTC could best share its resources to support this vulnerable sector of independent artists.

Alas, the most commonly desired resource was access to our rehearsal space, which was only available sporadically due to life during COVID, making it near-impossible to provide anyone with meaningful and continued access. As the chances of physical engagement diminished, I shifted my focus to the conversations with local playwrights that had piqued my interest—namely Vishesh Abeyratne and Sanita Fejzić. We reallocated some funds and created online playwriting residencies for our little group to meet, read, debate, discuss, critique and support once a week from August 2020 through May 2021.

My Google Drive folder labelled “Abeyratne.drafts” holds 11 drafts of three different scripts that Vishesh has been working on since we started meeting online. Although the three stories are distinct in terms of setting and style, each one channels the playwright’s response to racism, particularly the kind levelled against people who are Asian. Like Whitman’s multitudinous self, his characters offer frequent contradictions and, while reading, I can sense the playwright’s delight when I’m led astray by this tactic. Vishesh returns regularly to this theme of contradiction in his characters and, like anyone who is honing a skill, refines his approach with each successive pass. Since December, we have focused solely on his latest script, Blood Offering, in which a teenager who has become a radicalized Muslim prepares to deliver violence at the behest of an unexpected ally. This premise is, in and of itself, a contradiction, as an innocent bystander in the story repeatedly points out, but the horses, as they say, have already left the barn and the story continues under a pall of tragedy. This is interesting primarily because Vishesh set out to write this as a satire, dripping with uncomfortable truths. As we progressed through seven drafts, however, a new determination took hold and I watched with great interest while he zeroed in on the essence of his argument and found that, however tempting the comedy was, it was diluting the core.

This is not to say that the satirical tone has disappeared entirely. The antagonists of the play, who bear an eerie resemblance to the odious, gun-toting McCloskeys of St. Louis, seem to be ripped from the headlines of our real world-gone-mad, particularly in their rationalization that the end will justify the means. Like all good satirical twists, their story forces a mirror into the eye line of those who are least likely to see themselves for the villains that they have become. Lest there be any question about this, Vishesh provides a clue before we’ve read the first line of dialogue. Devoted to epigraphs, he has selected two compelling quotes to precede Blood Offering:

“To those against whom war is made, permission is given (to fight), because they are wronged; and verily, Allah is most powerful for their aid.”

—Qur’an 22:39

“Therefore let no man talk to me of other expedients…’till he hath at least some glimpse of hope that there will ever be some sincere and hearty attempt to put them into practice.”

—Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal

I’ve always been a sucker for any reference to Swift’s seminal work of satire, and by balancing it with a quote from a holy book, Vishesh serves notice that, although there may be some laughs ahead, he is not kidding around. It’s been an absolute pleasure getting to know this thoughtful young writer during such a difficult year for us all. Each meeting is defined by his reflective nature—he listens while I talk, sometimes far too much, until he finds something worth responding to, at which point he neatly summarizes his plan for the next draft. I am hopeful that GCTC audiences will see his work onstage before long, and I look forward to being right there alongside them as a new voice takes flight.