It took me a moment before I realized that the two witty kids I was walking the late night streets of Boston with were the infamous BROWNSTAR duo. They had come to the Boston Sepia Mutiny meetup last month, and afterwards we went on a hunt for DJ Kayper. They were hilarious, and I had heard about them through the spoken word grapevine. The BROWNSTAR REVOLUTION duo is a two member poetry/theatre/performance duo, consisting of the NORTHSTAR (Pushkar Sharma) and SOUTHSTAR (Sathya Sridharan). Started in 2007, this duo has been hitting up open mics, college stages, and poetry lounges sharing their words with anyone that will listen. There performances can’t be categorized, but has all the potential to revolutionize.
Taz: For those of those of the mutiny who may not know, who exactly is BROWNSTAR?
Pushkar: We’re a performance poetry duo, two-man spoken-word show.
Sathya: We’re more than just that though. We’re theatre; we’re comedy; we’re poetry. We like to throw everything into the pot and create something that isn’t always seen on stage.
Taz: How did you get your start? Did you start doing poetry first? Or performance first?
Sathya: I’ve been performing and writing in some way all my life, mostly being a clown for my family, or friends. I was a Drama and Eng Lit major in college, where Pushkar and I met. He directed me in my first show in college. I’m pursuing acting as well as this whole Brownstar thing. Ideally, I like to think of myself as an actor who likes to write poetry on the side. Pushkar: Our boy just made his film debut— look out for him in the Aaron Sorkin/David Fincher/Justin Timberlake super movie about… FACEBOOK. BROWNSTARs shining.
But we met at Washington University in St. Louis, when I directed Sathya in a play. I cast him because he had sweet long hair that I wanted but could never grow myself….But I started acting in high school (what up NILES NORTH HIGH SCHOOL– SKOKIE IL) and began directing in college.
Taz: So you guys are both in theatre in college. How did that turn into BROWNSTAR REVOLUTION?
Pushkar: I was looking for something to contrast the standard, slow, Chekhov/Shakespeare or family-fun! musicals they always did at college… And when I read this piece Sathya did for the South-Asian group’s annual Diwali show, I was like “Man, we should write something together.” (I secretly wanted to learn how to write and steal his brilliance.)
Sathya: He basically harassed me for a while about it.
Taz: How did you get convinced?
Sathya: I think it had to do with the fact that Pushkar A) is very convincing and persistent and B) he was right: we talked a lot about how there wasn’t something like THIS out there for young brown/South-Asians… something that speaks directly to them. We had similar experiences growing up and that is important to have with someone you are working with.
Pushkar: Yeah, the fact that we shared this twisted, bizarre, unconventional approach and a similar pop-cultural bank was pretty unique.
Sathya: Truth. Except I get NO Star Trek jokes.
Pushkar: I’m not a trekkie…What was that piece you wrote about Wrestlemania X?
Taz: What was the first piece you did together?
Sathya: It was called “Fuck the Drive Thru.” Pushkar: It was based on history. My personal experience trying to walk through a Taco Bell drive thru cuz I don’t have a car.
Taz: How did you guys come up with the name BROWNSTAR?
Pushkar: We really liked the Black Star album. Mos Def + Talib Kweli = Black Star. Sathya: That was the first hip hop album that blew me away.
Taz: Who are your inspirations?
Pushkar: Midnight’s Children is like our bible. Meaning that we’ve written two major pieces that have been heavily influenced by this book- “The Kal Penn 15″ and UNIFICATION. And then I wrote a play called “Midnite’s Vultures” that was recently produced in Chicago (xoxo Rasaka Theatre), also influenced by the book.
Sathya: Hip-hop wise I listen to a lot Mos Def, Common, Tribe Called Quest, Pharoahe Monch – those guys know how to make rhythm and language lie next to each other beautifully. They make them work in concert with each other. I dig folk and indie stuff too, such as Sufjan Stevens, Elliott Smith.
Pushkar: Lyrically, I go to musicians who I consider poets. Beck is my guy and (MF) DOOM. Guys that Sathya thinks make no sense.
Sathya: Not that they don’t make sense but …. They make sense on a different plane of existence.
Taz: What about your poetry and play influences?
Sathya: I love Shakespeare. That can’t be said enough. Saul Williams is probably my biggest spoken word influence. Both of them are masters of words and rhythm. Kerouac, Jack Gilbert, Salinger… a spattering of all types of writers and poets – American Romantics to modern writers. People I find myself reading time and time again. Pushkar: I’ve been really into people who tell stories that aren’t often told. John Leguizamo, whose autobiographical one-man shows “Freak” and “Sexaholix” tell about his experience growing up Latino in America really inspired me. Also, Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing”.
Taz: It seems that a lot of your influence is varied – but was wondering if you had any South Asian influences poetically/play/word/music/lyrically?
Pushkar: I think the answer to this question is the reason why we do what we do; we’re trying to encourage other South-Asian artists. There has been some great work out there though: Shishir Kurup’s play “Merchant on Venice,” Tarsem Singh, and Mira Nair showed me how we could make our own kind of powerful art in America. Big respect to Mira Auntie.
Taz: Speaking of Hollywood, you have a controversial piece on Kalpen Modi…?
Sathya: So like Pushkar said, “The Kal Penn 15″ is an homage to Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. In the book, Saleem Sinai is born at the stroke of South Asia’s independence. What happens to the region happens to him. We looked up onto the silver screen, and saw Kal Penn – he was the man. He was our face.
Pushkar: It’s like, whatever happens to him, whether he wins an Oscar or Lindsay-Lohan-cokes-out, will reflect on us. Sathya: So “Kal Penn 15″, is basically drawing Kal Penn as OUR Saleem Sinai (and by “our” I mean our generation of the South Asian diaspora). We rise and fall with Kal.
Pushkar: Let me just say we respect Kal Penn very much. I think our piece was meant to demonstrate our confused feelings: we have to applaud the guy in “Namesake,” but should we revere the guy who was Taj in “Van Wilder”? It’s like this strange mix of emotions about a man who has been both trail blazer and trail blazed.
Taz: You have one performance piece called UNIFICATION which is about this kid and his confusion around Freddie Mercury… Was that a personal story?
Pushkar: A lot of our stuff is our own experiences adapted for the stage. For me, that piece came from the confusion of being “Indian” with a family that has lived for generations in Pakistan. All my grandparents are from Lahore. Because a new nation was created 60 years ago, does all my history linked to that land get tossed out? And now it isn’t politically “right” for me to associate with Pakistan… We selected Freddie Mercury to represent someone who has lived on multiple fault lines of identity. Plus Sathya really wanted to sing “We are the Champions” on stage.
Taz: Lol. Well you both get to sing it.
Sathya: We could have written a piece called UNIFICATION documenting every historical conflict that Pakistan and India have undergone, but we thought the key was making the political personal. That would get to the heart of what we wanted to say and would get people to listen.
Taz: Speaking of family and personal history, how does your family receive what you do?
Sathya: They think it’s important work. My parents haven’t seen it, but they feel it. My sister and brother in law are number one fans. They get what we are trying to do and they are on board.
Sathya: When I was like in middle school, sure. But they got that there was a passion for something else. It’s not just art for entertainment sake… it’s something bigger and more holistic.
Taz: So I’m curious? Why Boston?
Pushkar: Well, I had a job here and when the Kid graduated in May we needed to reunite. I think things are working well; the community here really cares for us and fosters our work and the college scene out here is great.
Sathya: Get those ISAs and SASAs to bring us out! Show them that brown folks can talk about the issues we face and spark a dialog about South-Asian identity, though I really think at the heart our stuff is an immigrant story. It’s interesting that the more specific we get with our experiences, the more it reaches all kinds of people – they get it even when you’d think they wouldn’t.
Pushkar: We’ve gotten serious love and support from the broader Asian-American community. Special shout out to them. And we would be remiss not to shout out our boy Hari Kondabolu, our guru Giles Li, and the whole BPAC crew.
Taz: So what next for BROWNSTAR?
Pushkar: We’ve got a few things in the pipeline: A) We’re developing a show for the NYC Fringe Festival, B) UNIFICATION II scheduled for Manhattan on Aug 14-15, 2010 and C) An EP celebrating the 25th anniversary of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, called the Temple of Dhoom. And maybe… a west coast tour this summer….
Taz: How can people get a hold of you? See what you got? Invite you to perform?
Sathya: We do weddings.