Photo by Julia Monaco ’19
For three days in February, the Alumnae Hall stage was transformed into a forecourt of the Taj Mahal in 1648, where two friends stand sentinel at the nearly completed masterpiece. Directed by Kanika Vaish ’17, the Upstage production of Rajiv Joseph’s Guards at the Taj tells the story (probably mythical) that Shah Jahan, the Mughal emperor who built the Taj, ordered the hands of its architect and builders cut off after they finished their work, so its beauty could not be duplicated. In the two-actor production, Atiya Khan ’18 (left) and Sabina Unni ’19 played the guards, who are ordered to amputate thousands of artisans’ hands. The audience, seated on stage, chuckled at the guards’ joking camaraderie before they are assigned the grim task—and empathized with the traumatic shock they suffer after they complete it. With the characters, viewers explored issues of compliance with and resistance to autocratic power, and the price either response exacts.
“Upstage gives you a lot of freedom,” says Vaish, who also directed Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo last season. She chose his plays “because, I think, up until that point, there hadn’t been a lot of shows at Wellesley featuring minority characters, or shows set outside the United States. Also, being a poli-sci major, I love to have a theater-politics fusion.”
Upstage evolved from an 1890s student-run dramatic society called the Barnswallows, who performed in the building that is now Dower Hall, formerly a barn. The group mounts five productions each year, all student-managed, student-acted, student-designed, and student-directed. “We aim to prioritize the voices of people of color, deconstruct the theatrical canon, and celebrate brave new works by playwrights of diverse backgrounds,” the Upstage website declares. And Guards at the Taj hit all those marks.