“The Red Tent,” a theater piece conceived and directed by Sohina Sidhu DRA ’19 that focuses on the role menstruation plays in womanhood, concluded its run this past weekend at the Yale Cabaret.
Exploring topics rangingfrom terror to divinity, the performance’s cast of five actresses approached their craft with a fluid creative process that engaged with different fabricated and cultural rituals in tandem with menstruation. The piece finds its inception in the practice of chhaupadi, a social tradition that prohibits Hindu women from participating in everyday activities while exposed to the “impurity” of a menstrual period. According to Sidhu, the development of the piece became in itself a ritual, as it strived to produce something theatrical for an audience open to everyone.
“Of course the piece itself was a ritual, but I wanted the process to also feel like one,” said Sidhu, who also performed in the work. “What does it look like for brown women to gather, heal, create and love?”
The piece in part drew inspiration from Sidhu’s own experience as well as the creative input of cast members and the novel of the same name by Anita Diamant, Sidhu said.
Sidhu said she wanted “The Red Tent” to engage with the mystical quality of menstruation in different cultural traditions. Fascinated by the idea that “the closest thing to God we know on earth” can be found in the creation of another human being in the womb, the director described this performance as a lifelong project informed by her experiences witnessing the shocking ways in which society deals with menstruation.
Citing a story from her mother about growing up in Kenya without a puberty talk and being terrified by her first period as a 12-year-old, Sidhu described how disturbed she was to gradually realize how societies either ignore or shame a woman’s reproductive process. Receiving the titular novel from her mother and reading it as a young adult, she said, provided her with a pivotal resource.
She added that traveling to India with her family and watching women be put into ramshackle huts with scarce resources during their periods left a similarly important mark on her journey to eventually direct “The Red Tent.” She noted that one especially striking moment occurred when a Hindu family friend forbid her from entering a temple in India because she was on her period.
“That blew me away,” Sidhu said.
Sidhu incorporated creative techniques into work sessions with her cast, providing her fellow actresses with images, quotes, ideas, poetry and psalms during rehearsal before letting the group suggest directions for the scenes to take. She cited, for example, giving the group 15 words that were part of the four-week reproductive cycle before having the team break them into weeks and choreograph dances based on their reactions.
The actresses involved with the piece said they found the creative process to be particularly memorable. Kineta Kunutu DRA ’19, one of the actresses, said that Sidhu had been interested in ritual from the beginning of production, placing special emphasis on the ritual of a girl becoming a woman. Kunutu added that she had been nervous about the ritual aspect but came to enjoy it. Amandla Jahava DRA ’19, another actress, described one of the most difficult challenges in the play as having to not only perform a ritual but legitimately participate in one, all while taking the story forward. Going through a journey ultimately means going through a ritual, she added, specifying that she found the ritual of washing other cast members each night during the show to be “a very cleansing experience.”
For others, the freedom offered by Sidhu’s creative process alone presented a welcome change of pace from other art performances.
“The chance to devise work and have something not structured or predetermined is always incredibly magical,” said Alexandra Cadena ’17, another actress. “Coming from an undergraduate rehearsal process, that’s never something that ever happens because Yale undergraduate theater is very product oriented.”
Ashley Chang DRA ’25, the show’s dramaturge, said “The Red Tent” primarily acts as an “aspirational fantasy love song” for girls and women who are treated as if they are unclean by society during their menstrual periods.
Chang noted that the piece had been devised by women of color “standing in their own individual radiance” rather than speaking for all the cultures they represent or all “femme-identified folk.”
Cast members also noted how revelatory it was to receive feedback from audience members following the performance. Cadena said that two women thanked her outside the Yale Cabaret following the show, which she called a very humbling and inspiring moment. Kunutu added that after one performance a girl recounted for her the shame surrounding her first period, and found it similarly rewarding to have momentarily connected with an audience member.
The show’s cast and crew took further inspiration from the positive reception that they received from the Cabaret audience. Kunutu and Jahava said that they had wondered whether or not the Yale Cabaret’s audience would be responsive to the piece, but were struck by how many older white men and women responded positively to it.
“Hearing our patrons, particularly the older patrons, come out of the house talking about how important that work was and how much they appreciated that the female voice and experience were uplifted was very moving,” said Lisa Richardson DRA ’19, the producer.
Cast members also noted how heartened they were by a production team that did an excellent job collaborating with performers while working on such a tech-heavy show. Laura Cornwall DRA ’19, the stage manager, noted that preparations for the performance required designers to be present with the cast and work within the larger group, unlike other shows that might allow designers to do their part and leave.
Cornwall added that she had never worked on a devised piece like this before, which proved both challenging and exciting as she collaborated with Sidhu to develop the director’s ideas during rehearsals into workable concepts for the designers.