Late in July, I watched a disturbing and wrenching play called “The Box” at the Z Space auditorium in the Mission. The play was written by Sarah Shourd, who, you may recall, was one of three Americans caught by Iranian border guards in 2009 and taken into custody for “illegal entry and espionage.” Shourd spent 410 days in solitary confinement in an Iranian cell. “The Box,” a play about solitary confinement, was stirred by her own experiences as well as her research as she traveled to “visit prisoners in solitary confinement in 13 facilities across the country.”
Looney Tunes, one of the many memorable characters in the play, compiled a compelling and destabilizing narrative of mental illness and incarceration through incoherent sounds and rapid movements.
Moved by the depth of the unforgiving portrayal, I contacted J. Jha, the actor who inhabited the Looney Tunes character, and asked about the personal experiences that were brought to the role. Jha explained that being confined was a familiar story.
Jha came to America in 2011 to pursue a Masters in acting at the University of Washington. Once he graduated and came to San Francisco, Jha experienced a freedom that created a “systemic shift” in his life. “Today, I’m an immigrant seeking asylum in America as a person who is gender non-conforming,” Jha said.
It’s not usual to encounter people from India seeking asylum in America. In fact, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Justice, there were only 372 people who were granted asylum between 2012 to 2014 — representing about 4.2 percent of all people granted asylum.
Jha’s story is about identity. Growing up in India, Jha did not encounter a single openly gay person. “It took me a while to figure out who I was,” Jha said. “When I looked in the mirror, I faced myself as a homosexual man.” But Jha felt restrained by the shackles of convention and could not acknowledge sexual orientation in India.
Jha belonged to a middle-class family of five, with Jha’s father being the only breadwinner. It would have been hard for family and friends to see Jha as gay.
Sure, there was an underground gay culture in New Delhi, the capital city of India, where Jha grew up, but underground is exactly and only where homosexuality lived and breathed. Section 377 of the Indian penal code makes homosexuality punishable by law.
It’s when Jha came to America and stayed in a co-ed dorm that they began to question the traditional definitions of gender and its binary construct. “Gender and identity are inextricably linked,” Jha said. “When I began to dress in different ways, I was told I was beautiful. I was accepted. That was explosively revealing.” It was a taste of freedom never before experienced. Jha finally found the courage to begin the process of affirming their identity.
Transgender people are called “hijras” in India, and Jha saw firsthand how hijras were subject to ridicule, rejection, segregation and exploitation in India. Jha related the story of how, as a young boy, they had witnessed a group of people physically assault and yell epithets at a transgender individual at a railway station merely because the person had been standing in line to buy a ticket. And there were horrific stories of sexual mutilation and forced castrations.
As Jha began to experiment with dressing in a gender non-conforming fashion, they grasped the very real possibility of persecution if they returned to India as a transgender queer person. So Jha found San Francisco lawyer Ken Seeger, of Seeger Salvas law firm, who agreed to take on Jha’s case pro bono and applied for asylum in 2015. Seeger has been working on asylum cases since 1988 and he mentioned that he took on Jha’s case because he felt strongly about the issue. “I only take on cases I believe in and I don’t charge for asylum cases,” Seeger averred.
Within the Looney Tunes character, all the freedom that Jha so recently acquired disappeared. The role forced them to don the skin of a hijra, of a person who was rejected and alienated. “Who’s to say who we are and how we dress? Those are just the limitations of our imagination,” Jha declared.
Looney Tunes was a speechless role and was neatly explicated into mirroring the desperation and urgency of those who are unable to communicate conventionally. In the entire two-and-a-half hours of the play, Looney Tunes may have uttered up to three discernible and fully constructed sentences. When they first read the script, Jha said that it was mostly all in parenthesis, with only a few lines in Scene 4 where Looney Tunes asks permission to see a nurse.
Jha said that the story of confinement changed for them every night “as the cries of Looney echoed against the walls of his cell and as the audience reacted.” With the relentless movement that was part of their portrayal, Jha changed the viewing relationship between actor and audience. They deliberately stripped the audience of the comfort of believing that it was just a role and that the actor was merely acting and not “under deep physical and emotional stress.”
Jha is exactly the kind of asylee President Barack Obama was referring to in his statement on World Refugee Day, on June 20: “Each has enriched the diverse mosaic that is America. Their lives and their many accomplishments stand as a clear rebuke to the bigotry and brutality they fled, and serve as a powerful example of the human will to endure, hope, and achieve.”
I hope Jha will continue to occupy the same national footprint that I do, and I hope Jha is granted the liberty to be who he wants to be, without confinement, without refinement.
Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan. In Brown Type covers immigrant issues in San Francisco.