Snehal Desai: Interview

By Jeff Walsh

Snehal Desai is 28 years old, and only finished his master's degree in directing from Yale University three months ago, but he's already made his way to San Francisco with his one-man show.

"Finding Ways to Prove You're NOT an Al Qaeda Terrorist When You're Brown (and other stories of the gIndian) is Desai's one-man show exploring his life as a gay Indian through monologues that explore his sexual, spiritual, pharmaceutical, and cultural dimensions. From ex-boyfriends who both invent and then eroticize his curry-scented skin to family members who keep pushing him toward arranged marriages, the show moves quickly through its various terrains.

Some of the show's best moments take place when Desai's character (we'll get into the whole non-autobiographical one-man show aspect in the interview) visits India and finds the country's openness about same-sex intimacy refreshing, even if it isn't completely indicative of its acceptance of homosexuality. He also explores the pain of queer children forced to confirm to that society's will, yet at the same time finds poetry and beauty in a kite-flying competition that encapsulates the best qualities of the human spirit, if we could all looking at one another the same way permanently.

I saw the show tonight, but spoke with Desai yesterday, catching up with him in middle of tech rehearsal for his West coast premiere. Here's what we said:

So, we're both from Eastern Pennsylvania. I'm from Wilkes-Barre…

Oh, OK.

And, I don't know about Quakertown, but in Wilkes-Barre, I never knew anyone Indian growing up there. And that was over a span of 26 years, so… did Quakertown have much of a community or were you it?

We were pretty much it growing up. I think over time now there are definitely more families, but there were only two or three Indian. There weren't a ton growing up. In Allentown, which is a larger city, there were more, and obviously in Philly there were a lot. But in Quakertown it was definitely a small…

It was appropriately named.

Yeah. (laughs) It was pretty religious growing up there.

So, growing up in the small town, did you ever think you'd be onstage in San Francisco talking about being a gay Indian?

No. (laughs) I never envisioned that. I did some theater in high school, we didn't have a ton. And I, for all intents and purposes, had planned to go to law school when I went to college, and things have a way of…

You were on the right campus, just in the wrong department.

Exactly. But, no, I never thought about that.

So, is it more insulting to your parents that you made it to Yale but you're still not doing the lawyer thing?

No, I think that actually helps them better understand how much I want to do this theater thing, that I have a chance of doing it, and that I can hold my own in the theater world.

In college, that was my intent, and then after I finished my major early. I was a Poly-Sci major. So, I started to fool around in the theater department and I did a lot of acting and things like that, but that wasn't really hitting, and there's not a lot of roles for Indian actors, so I got into stage managing, and design, and then I took a directing course in my junior year and things really clicked for me. I had a professor who really took an interest in my work, so I started to pursue the directing route in my senior year.

Then after I graduated, I stayed in Atlanta, and I was hired as a resident director and I was like, 'Oh, this is really what I love,' but I still took the LSAT and applied and did all that, but I was like, 'I'll try it and see if this works.'

So, I applied to law school and to the Yale school of drama, and it's much more competitive to get into theater school than it is to get in law school. They only take three directors a year, you know? (laughs) So, I think my parents started to understand that this is really what I wanted to do. So, they've come around.

So you mentioned acting and directing… but you also wrote this show.

I did.

Was that always something you wanted to do, or a case of 'If there's no Indian roles, I'll write the damned thing…'

By the time I graduated, I was the only Indian. In my first and second years, there was another. But it's a pretty small population. So I wandered around and complained about the lack of South Asian work and the opportunities for me to do that and I ended up forming a South Asian collective while at Yale that does theater, but it was university-wide.

It's funny, but a large population of South Asians was in the Med School, obviously? So, I was approaching them to get into shows. And we decided to create a piece called Fresh Off The Boeing: Journeys of South Asian Discovery, which was like a devised piece where, as an ensemble, we created pieces.

So, I started writing for that. Mainly because we weren't finding any plays that were written that were defining our experiences or what we wanted to tell. And people were like, 'Hey, some of these pieces are really great.' And I started to bring them into classes and people were like, 'Yeah, you should continue to pursue that.'

So, the writing was never something I never did before. I was a director, that's what I was trained to do, and that's what I was really interested in doing, but it just became a thing of 'Well, who's going to perform these? There's no one else, so… I guess I'll do that, as well.'