TRYING TO CONNECT WITH “DISCONNECT”
SAN JOSÉ, CA—Presented by San José Rep in its West Coast premiere, “DISCONNECT” is a very interesting work, a play that may not be a play, in the true sense of the word.
Written by Indian Playwright ANUPAMA CHANDRASEKHAR, and Directed skillfully by SJ Rep Artistic director RICK LOMBARDO, the work is called a play because its characters: Avinash (RAJESH BOSE), Vidya (SHARONE SAYEGH) Ross IMRAN SHEIKH, Giri (RAY SINGH) and Jyothi (DEVON AHMED, use dialogue, delivered at very fast speed, to communicate, but not to each other but to people that the audience never sees or hears. I am not sure if we could call this type of communication “dialogue” because we, the audience, can hear only the part of the conversation that originates in India and travels, via telephone wires, to the United States where the “customers” who receive the calls live.
“DISCONNECT” is creative in its structure, but at times, it get repetitious. If the play works, it is because its subject matter arouses our curiosity, the characters are likable, and their acting is realistic. Seeing on stage how the “Call Centers” in India work, opens our minds to the reality of a far away place, a country that we know by name, yet, many of us know very little about.
When a play about India’s working conditions in a “Call Center” was announced by the Rep, we, the audience, wanted to see the play. When we saw the play, we learned about those conditions and we were appalled by them. We wanted to feel empathy for the characters, but we could not feel anything. Why? Because by concentrating only on their working conditions, the playwright forgot to teach us, the audience many things about her characters. So we wonder: Who are they? What makes them work in a place like this where they have to talk on the phone for ten hours daily, in the middle of the night in India, repeating the equivalent of a “mantra” over and over again, asking the accounts' delinquent customers to pay at least part of their outstanding debts. Sadly, we never learn who this debtors are either. Not even their names. And because we cannot hear their end of their conversations, we have no idea how do they react to these calls or what excuses they give to the callers. The end result is that the audience feels as “disconnected” from these callers as the callers feel towards their American customers.
In the play, we get to meet three callers. They are young and we imagine that each one of them must have a very strong compelling reason to continue working in the "Call Center" under those barbaric conditions. What is that reason? Do they have a family to support? Who are these people? Where do they live? With whom? Do they have any life aside from their work? We want to know.
For her play ANUPAMA created interesting characters, yet did not put in any of them the “spark of Life.” that could have brought them to a third dimension. They talk. but because most of their dialogue is not expository dialogue with each other, we do not know their motivation.
“DISCONNECT” starts with a conversation between Jyothi (DEVON AMED) the Call Center supervisor an Avinash, (BOSE) another company supervisor who is about to be released from work not only because of his age, but because the group he supervises is unable to fulfill its “quota” meaning the amount of money, the people in "New York" that his group calls on a daily basis had promised to pay. Jyothi reminds Avinash that he must act happy at all times because their company needs happy workers, (which is the reason why happy faces are pasted all over the walls) The Call Center believes that happy workers make “happy customers.”
The truth is that there are no happy workers at the Center because to be able to breach the l6 hours difference between India and the United States, these callers work for l0 hours at night, (which is day time in the USA) when everybody else in India is sleep. During those hours, they have two l0 minutes breaks and half an hour for dinner and when their throats feel parched, for talking for so long, they are unable to drink a coke, because their coke machine is broken.
After Avinash, who has been with the company for a while promises to improve, his work Jyothi gives him “another chance” by sending him to Chicago (the floor that calls the customers living in Chicago) a windowless room. It is there where he meets Ross (SHEIKH) Vidya (SAYEGH and Giri SINGH)
A good part of the play takes part in the work place with the workers sitting down at a long table wit nothing but a telephone and a computer for each employee. Their phone conversations with their customers are short, they introduced themselves and ask their customers to pay even a part of their debts. In these conversations they have to “impersonate” being Americans.” They need to talk with American accents using American names to introduce themselves.
After a while, working l0 hours every night, the repetitiveness of their conversations with their “customers,” feigning their accents when they speak with their customers and the overall conditions of a job that pays them $700.00 a month, begin affecting the mind of one of them. It would have been interesting to be able to watch or hear the stages of this deterioration. It also would have been interesting to get to know Sarah. What happened at the end of the play is “tragic” but we cannot care for the characters. After all, who was Sarah? We only heard her name.
The subject in “DISCONNECT” is interesting, but its dialogue as it is now is insufficient to involve the audience, emotionally, in what could have been a fascinating story.