Jivesh Parasram has more than the usual pre-show jitters when he answers The Coast’s phone call days before he’s set to perform his play Take d Milk, Nah? at Dartmouth’s Alderney Landing Theatre March 29. “I don't know how it's gonna be received. I was just going for a jog and was like: ‘Oh, what's that feeling? That’s just low-grade fear right now’,” he says and laughs. “I don't feel like Nova Scotians are the type that would punch me in the face for doing something to piss them off. But I hope is not something that will just make people shut down, y’know what I mean?” His instincts aren’t totally baseless: Take d Milk, Nah? is a one-person show (an offering he says is “mainly just jokes, to be honest”) about growing up in Dartmouth with a mixed racial identity that was often misperceived by his mostly white neighbours and peers. (As the synopsis puts it: Parasram’s white neighbours thought he was Black; his Black neighbours thought he was Muslim. Both camps were incorrect.)
When he performs the play Wednesday night, it’ll be the first time his hometown sees what he’s been saying about them. (It’s already wowed critics and audiences alike in Ottawa, Vancouver and Toronto, with both the Globe and Mail and NOW Magazine calling it a must-see piece of theatre.)
The arrival of Parasram’s play—which, he says, was partially inspired by the fallout of Lido Pimienta’s Halifax Pop Explosion concert (where a white photographer’s refusal to head Pimienta’s request for “Brown girls to the front” made international headlines in 2017)—feels timely in more ways than one. Recent mainstreaming of racial consciousness, he concedes, means his show, which he began performing in 2018, feels extra of-the-moment. (Taking inspiration from Pimienta, Parasram begins Take d Milk, Nah? by asking white audience members to briefly leave the theatre, creating what he calls “an affinity space” for people of colour.)
But the current cultural climate isn’t the only thing that makes now the perfect time for Parasram’s play. There’s also the accidental contrast that’s being struck in Halifax’s theatre calendar: Months after Take d Milk, Nah? brings a story of lived experience growing up on the east coast to viewers, the mammoth Broadway hit Come From Away visits Halifax’s Scotiabank Centre in November. The two stand in sharp contrast: Parasram giving an insider, local take that is often misconstrued as an outsider’s perspective (due to his racial identity) while Come From Away delivers Broadway’s impressions of what Atlantic Canadian community is.
When this is mentioned on the call to Parasram, he instantly sees the, well, not quite irony, but the frisson.The early 2000s-era east coast presented in Come From Away (which, for the uninitiated, tells the story of a Newfoundland town’s hospitality towards a planeload of strangers dumped on their doorstep due to a 9/11 emergency landing) “It's just, um, it’s just not what I remember,” he begins with a laugh. “And maybe it is different for people who were coming in, but it’s like ‘we were friends to everyone—even the muslims’,” Parasram puts on—and quickly takes off—an ‘aw, shucks’ voice before continuing. “I’m not saying it’s not true. It’s a kind of non-party propaganda that's out there. It's really like, ‘we're gonna put that image out there and be proud of that.’ And it’s kindness, and you should be proud of it, I suppose,” he says. “But it gets celebrated to such a point that like, I mean, like being someone who was here: I think my experience was actually watching a body change in that moment. And kind of seeing what that meant. Like, it was never great being a brown guy. But, I often say there was a point where it was a brown guy. And he was like, ‘okay, that guy's a little bit different. But maybe it'll be a doctor or a lawyer or something. So, whatever.’ And then after 9/11, it’s like ‘and that guy's a terrorist.’ And it happened so fast, you kind of did get a little bit of whiplash from it.”
So, how has Dartmouth—and HRM in general—changed since the days that inspired him to write Take d Milk, Nah? “You can walk around Halifax and the streets are way more diverse than they used to be—and I think that’s great,” Parasram, who now lives in Vancouver, says. His last visit home—in summer 2022—saw him accidentally caught in the crowd of a Soca concert at Grand Parade filled with diversity, surprised and delighted at what was surrounding him. “I had to turn to someone next to me and say ‘Does this happen here now?’” he adds. The stranger told him: “Yeah, sometimes.”