On a recent opening night, Kanika Vaish ’17 and Sabina Unni ’19 swiped on lipstick, readying themselves for the performance—then, they adjusted their laptops’ camera angles and logged on to a video conferencing platform. They are the co-founders of Fresh Lime Soda, an ensemble that focuses on contemporary works and fosters community among South Asian artists and performers—and has also unexpectedly become an experiment in online theater.
Fresh Lime Soda’s performances weren’t originally virtual. The ensemble launched pre-lockdown, on Valentine’s Day 2020, with Ghost Play, a comedy about millennials in New York City bringing their cases of being “ghosted” by dates to court. Written by Kanika and directed by Sabina, it was read in-person at the famed Riverside Church in Manhattan to an audience of 100 people. When the pandemic swept into the United States in March, they shifted their theatrical endeavors to the internet. “I was very nervous and apprehensive about operating on Zoom,” says Kanika. “Now we’ve fully embraced this new genre of media-theater.”
At Wellesley, the two theater-makers met while celebrating Diwali and acting in a Shakespeare Society production of Much Ado About Nothing. They became fixtures in Upstage and Shakes, working to introduce students who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) to the pleasure and political power of theater.
Wellesley was also where Kanika discovered the works of Indian American playwright Rajiv Joseph. She directed productions of Guards of the Taj (with Sabina as one of the guards) and Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, and his work continues to be a lasting influence. Kanika is currently pursuing an M.F.A. in playwriting and screenwriting at Columbia University, and Sabina works for leftist, down-ballot races in Brooklyn.
“After Kanika graduated, I tried to extend her legacy of getting lots of BIPOC folks into the theater community at Wellesley,” says Sabina. “I directed a lot for the Shakespeare Society and chose things that picked apart Shakespeare and asked, ‘Why are we obsessed with this canonical figure? And how can we make these plays our own?’”
Today, they focus on explicitly contemporary, political works and seek out new actors, playwrights, and directors across the South Asian diaspora. Through Zoom, they have collaborated with artists from all over the globe, including Pakistan, India, the Maldives, Singapore, Malaysia, England, and the U.S. They have produced performances, staged readings, workshops, discussions, and watch parties, in person and online. They’ve analyzed everything from Netflix’s Never Have I Ever to catcalls to social caste. Fresh Lime Soda is a cross-continental, participatory theater of and for this digital age.
Most notably, they produced Ravayana, an ambitious, queer Zoom adaptation of the Hindu epic of Ram and Sita written by Dhinesha Karthigesu, a Malaysian playwright they met on Instagram, directed by Sabina, and starring Lucky Bommireddy ’17, Uttkantha Sindhwani ’21, and Fazeelat Aslam ’07.
“There’s a lot that’s lost from IRL theater, but you also gain a lot from digital performance, too,” says Sabina. “I feel like theater is moving in the direction of multimedia and infusing itself with technology.”
Of course, virtual theater is not without its technical challenges. In addition to the risks of unreliable Wi-Fi and frozen faces, it involves being your own sound design, lighting, and costume departments. Theater-makers must be resourceful. “For a director who wanted to play with darkness, light, and trauma, I went into a really dark closet so the screen was obscured and fuzzy,” Sabina says.
When Hurricane Isaias caused a weeklong power outage on Long Island, Sabina conducted rehearsals from her mom’s car. “We have a lot of funny stories about moms walking in during a performance,” says Kanika. “In the middle of a pretty cathartic scene, someone’s mom will come in the room and start yelling at her in Punjabi,” says Sabina. They’ve embraced the accidental cameos and on-screen glitches. During the pandemic, art needn’t be ultra-polished.
For Fresh Lime Soda, politically engaged theater will always be top priority. “We want to keep doing Zoom plays and open up this space for dialogue on inequities,” says Kanika. Sabina says, “I don’t know a lot about the future, but I know I’m going to be creating.”