What is a Brahmin doing producing a play about baseball?
The play is Lee Blessing's "Oldtimers' Game." The producer is Shashin Desai of Bombay, India, the artistic director of Long Beach City College's International City Theatre.
"Oldtimers' Game," opening Friday, is about baseball's competitive spirit, and how it affects fading veterans and cocky rookies alike. For Desai, "the issue of how people are bought and sold as commodities carries as much weight in the play as the game itself."
Talent versus the deal : This was also a critical theme of Desai's last production at Long Beach, Martin Jones' drama of black musicians in the racist South, "West Memphis Mojo." Part of Desai's "through-line" for his theater is to confront thoroughly American subjects.
A difficult task for an outsider? Perhaps not. "I think I can be more objective about issues here than many Americans can be. I think it's an added advantage for me, being able to look from the outside in.
"I was born a Brahmin," said Desai. "My family was very educated. And very political. When I was a child, they used to have meetings of the national independence movement in our living room."
Even though his father owned a textile business with interests in England, India's break with Britain was his passion. As a result, Desai was "fed a constant diet of American plays. And though my father wanted me to be a textile man, not a theater man, he unwittingly encouraged me by taking me to plays and movies."
In two ways, Desai committed the unthinkable: He didn't take over the family business, and he married outside his caste. His bride-to-be was involved in the first theater he ever operated. (At the same time, he was directing radio dramas on All-India Radio, the BBC of the subcontinent). Not until he attended USC, earning a master's degree in both theater and film, did he marry her.
A man with a constant smile, a short, compact frame and a Brahmin-like taste in clothes, Desai found his work in theater, cinema and photography to be mutually beneficial.
"Whether I'm directing or somebody else is ('Oldtimers' is being staged by David Herman), my hope is that the action on stage could be frozen at any moment and we'd have a fine composition."
He has a congenial space at International City Theater, originally built as a workshop area for drama classes. Supported both by the Long Beach community and the college, it's a unique situation for a local theater.
Desai, current chair of the college's performing arts department (from which emerged such alumni as South Coast Repertory's David Emmes, Ron Boussom and dramaturge Jerry Patch), explained that there were three reasons for the theater's nascence.
"First, students, in their protected environment, needed to see how professional theater functions. Second, Long Beach lacked a small, serious theater, especially when Los Angeles and Orange County were becoming very active.
"Third, Long Beach is no longer the Long Beach of 20 years ago. Culturally, it's ready for what we're doing. (The theater's first production was the AIDS-themed 'A Quiet End.')
"The college is supporting the students, not the theater. But we give the students additional training after they've completed their curriculum. When I suggested it, the administration couldn't resist having another training facility.
"There has to be," Desai added, sounding shrewd for a professor, "a carrot for everybody."