Two mothers, one Jewish, one Indian, consider stereotype of the underachieving child
A Jewish mother and an Indian mother walk into a theatre . . .
It sounds like the set-up for a classic ethnic identity joke, but it’s what happened when I took Sandy Cohen and Asha Jain to see Brad Zimmerman’s one-man show My Son the Waiter, A Jewish Tragedy at the Toronto Centre for the Arts.
From the show’s title it’s pretty clear that it trades on the stereotype of the overbearing Jewish mom, but I was curious if it would ring true beyond that specific culture.
Jain quickly came to mind: born in India, she’s the mother of theatre director Ravi Jain and has been touring with him on and off for the past five years in A Brimful of Asha, an autobiographical show about her and her husband’s efforts to arrange a marriage for him (a tale she assures me with a smile is “totally true”).
Along with Ravi (who is now married to the actor/writer Sarena Parmar), Asha has another adult son and two granddaughters.
My other viewing companion, Cohen, is mother of two, grandmother of five and a major theatre fan, whose late husband Bob starred in comedy shows at their synagogue.
My Son the Waiter, a touring show presented in Toronto by the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company, is not quite what we expect: not so much a play as an extended standup routine, which eventually delivers a narrative of Zimmerman’s journey from underachieving, bitter restaurant worker to moderately successful standup (he opened for Joan Rivers, who called him “the best comedian in his price range”).
The meat and potatoes of the show is knowing jokes about Jewish culture, which play well with to a packed preview audience, largely made up of older folks many of whom, I’d wager, are Harold Green season subscribers.
I ask Jain if she connected to the material and she immediately mentions the popular Indian-Canadian comedian Russell Peters, whose routines often treat Indian parents’ expectations and their kids’ unfailing capacity not to live up to them (the old standard Zimmerman offers about a Jewish fetus not being viable until it graduates from medical school could easily be transposed into a Peters gag).
Cohen too found the jokes familiar. “His delivery and timing are excellent, and the material — I’ve heard it before. It’s from the Borscht Belt. My late husband loved that kind of humour.”
For a lot of the show, Zimmerman represents himself as an underachieving shlemiel who waits tables for nearly three decades but is not exactly passionate about the pursuit (when an impatient customer tells him he’s in a hurry, Zimmerman zings back, “Why don’t you just go?”). I wonder to Cohen and Jain about this self-portrait of the artist as a young loser.
That’s what parents do, Jain replies. “They make you feel like a loser.”
Cohen agrees: “Yes, if you’re not a doctor or a lawyer.”
“That’s why he made that joke, how he’s put down all the time,” says Jain. “And that’s true in our community too. We want our kids to be some professional: doctor, lawyer, IT professional, banker, businessman.”
Did Cohen and Jain involve themselves in their children’s choice of career? Cohen says she did: “We guided them. We pushed them, yes. Both my children are professionals. My son is in the banking business, my daughter is a physical therapist and she knew since she was 12 what she wanted to do.”
Jain says that, early on, Ravi’s interest in theatre was a struggle for her. “When he graduated from NYU, he was the only Indian person who came out of the theatre degree. That was hard for me as a mother. We had a lot of arguments before he went into the career but, once he did it, we supported him all the way.”
Cards on the table, ladies: if one of their kids or grandkids was a waiter, would that be a tragedy for you? Both quickly say yes but then regroup a little.
“You know, maybe I learn a lesson here,” says Jain. “Happiness is the most important. If my grandchild is happy to be a waiter, first I would like them to have good education. And if after education they want to be happy with a waiter job . . . I just want them to have the best. . . .”
“To be the best they can be at what they are,” agrees Cohen. “The first thing for us was always education, education, education, education. Then do what you want. We’ve given you that grounding, that background, and then fly with it.”
My Son the Waiter, A Jewish Tragedy is at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, 5040 Yonge St., until Dec. 10. See hgjewishtheatre.com for details.
At the Theatre With . . . is an occasional series in which theatre critic Karen Fricker brings people with specialist perspectives to performances.
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