Tea | Auckland Arts Festival 2018

Seven stories in seven sips: this is what writer and director Ahi Karunaharan has brewed — a finely tuned, sensitive and enveloping story that shuttles us back in time to the tea plantations of Sri Lanka.

Set in the early 1920s, Tea focuses on an inter-generational family drama anchored in the historic servitude of the Tamil indentured labourers, a captive population kept powerless by poverty, debt and fear. Mel Odedra and Mayen Mehta give unforgettable performances as Ravi and Bala, two brothers placed at opposite ends of the tea estate’s socio-economic spectrum.

Their choices are a catalyst for events that widen the chasm between rich and poor and continue to steep each generation in growing precarity. Anjula Prakash plays Gowri, Ravi’s daughter, a domestic to her cousins Theepa (Kalyani Nagarajan) and Raji (Rina Patel) — both of whom endure their mother Kamala’s (Rashmi Pilapitiya) incessant nagging to get married.

However, in the next generation, Gowri’s son Shiva (Odedra again) is determined to better his family’s situation but tragedy strikes (a reminder of the 28 year civil war that enveloped Sri Lanka) and events begin to change only when his own daughter Janaki, played with finesse by Saraid Cameron, accepts Haron (Raji’s grandson) as her husband.

Their union brings us to the bittersweet present where Shankari (again Cameron) and her now ageing father, played by the distinguished Mustaq Missouri, return home to Sri Lanka.

This family drama is more than just witty barbs exchanged on the porch swing. Tea is the stuff of unfulfilled dreams, revolution and reclamation. It is the technique by which the seeds are planted, the balancing act of cup and saucer, the future told in the leaves.

Karunaharan has created an elegy to the past but it is couched within a familiar present. Guided by Ravikanth Gurunathan (as Sateesh, the tea tour-guide) and Raai Badeeu as the flawed money-hungry Seelan, he gives us a tale that is nostalgic yet hopeful, brought to life by consistently compelling performances from the cast.

The writing is only bettered by Karunaharan’s direction: seamless, heartfelt and unerringly true. Artist Tiffany Singh’s set design is alternately delicate and bold, her rich palette of colours complementing Padma Akula’s beautiful costume choices. Composer Karnan Saba and Bhuvana Venkat also deserve special mention for adding depth and nuance to an already rich narrative and the dance movements are particularly evocative.

Produced by Sums Selvarajan, this production ushers in a new era of New Zealand theatre proudly boasting an all South-East Asian cast. After enduring a brutal civil war for 28 years, Sri Lanka has once again plunged into turmoil with attacks on Muslim communities. Tea is a call to taste the sweat, tears, blood and remember — there is still more to be done.