Patricia Vichmann gently draws her scarf across her face and tucks it into the corner of her mouth. She looks down momentarily and, when her gaze returns, her eyes are glistening with tears. Vichmann is drawing on the emotions of her character Sanichari, the lead role in the upcoming play, Rudali, The Mourner, and perhaps a little of her own life, too.
Rudali, the Mourner is staged by Indian theatre company Prayas and features an intentionally multicultural mix of actors. It's a potent tale based on the real-life exploitation of Indian women by high-caste men.
"It's a very powerful story," says Vichmann, who is originally from Rarotonga.
The play is set in a small east Indian village where men of high caste use prostitutes to publicly mourn at the funerals of their relatives, so the men's status can be maintained.
"This particular story is the men that are employing these women [as mourners] are the ones who are turning them into prostitutes in the first place. And it's about Sanichari's struggle of her life.
"Her son is dying, her mother-in-law is always nagging in the background, she has a grandson to take care of. She ends up alone and all her life she's always been called a witch. She's had to remain quite stoic, but people see that as her being quite a cold-hearted woman."
It's not until Sanichari reconnects with an old friend and the pair build a business out of being professional mourners that the old woman is lauded as an icon of empowerment.
Vichmann, who has worked with Prayas on earlier productions, says although the subject matter may seem irrelevant to Kiwis, the premise is universal in its portrayal of discrimination, friendship and a fighting spirit. "What goes on in this play is brought about by situation. We're here to live the same life; we all want the same things out of life."
The role is an emotional one for Vichmann and she has drawn on hardships in her own life.
"A writer will write what they know, and I find I end up being involved in stories that I can relate to. Having been brought up in the welfare system from 14 to 18, I have had to be quite stoic. My life prior to that was quite traumatic."
Vichmann says being involved in the production has sparked her interest in Indian culture and she hopes audiences feel the same.
"Prayas theatre has always wanted to do that, and it's why they translate all their plays into English. They want to educate New Zealand about them, because we all have these ideas of what Indian culture is about.
"Part of what they want to do is stop prejudice against people's assumptions of Indian culture. People can relate to this story, it's a way of saying, we're no different. It's been an education. It's been an amazing journey."
Producer Sudeepta Vyas says the company began in 2005 and aims to share stories about India and its culture. It has staged a production almost every year since.
"There's an enormous joy and pride in sharing our stories. We want to share more than just our food and the colour of our festivals."
A SERIOUS THEME
WHAT Rudali - the Mourner
WHEN May 18-27
WHERE Tapac, 100 Motions Rd, Western Springs
HOW MUCH Adults $30; Senior citizens/students with ID $20
www.tapac.org.nz or phone TAPAC (09) 845 0295.
(Not recommended for children. Contains adult themes and offensive language)