A nineteenth century Scottish trader and a Chinaman stealing tea plants from China to start a tea empire in India; the great-grandson holding back a revolution at his tea plantation in post-colonial India; a young Indian woman drying tea leaves while rueing her inevitable move to the big city of Mumbai. “In the Kingdom of Cha”, written by Sue Smith and directed by Petra Kalive, is made up of these three interconnected stories of the colonial powers, transactions, and human hands that generate the tea bag. As one of the five play readings in the Melbourne Theater Company’s Cybec Electric, In the Kingdom of Cha offers a fresh look at the colonial history of tea making in achronological order, splicing together the three stories.
From the very beginning, the Scotsman, Charles, disregards all others in his quest for the world’s greatest tea, unfazed by the threat of the Chinese guard. Charles’ companion, the Chinaman, tells him of his extraordinary palette for tasting tea and Charles immediately proclaims that he will come along for the quest without asking whether he wants to go or not. He even renames the Chinaman Sinensis, after the tea plant Camellia sinensis, a move that practically screams out ‘colonialism’. When Sinensis falls ill to malaria, Charles discovers that Sinensis is actually a woman and essentially rapes her while she is delirious. In his mind, he was merely showing her his love, but does not seem to understand that she too has a voice and a will. Later in the play, he asks Sinensis, “I’ve loved you, haven’t I?” and is shocked when Sinensis replies that she has been his slave for the last twenty years and that he never even asked her name. While the power dynamic between Charles and Sinensis is clearly unbalanced throughout the play, the last scene humanizes the Scotman, revealing his delusions and grief at figuring out the truth.
This colonial relationship is echoed in the dynamic between Charles’ great-grandson Edmond and his childhood friend, Rani, a young Indian woman under his employment. There is sexual attraction between the two, but when the subject is brought up, Edmond laughs off the idea of them being together, perhaps in self-defense. In another scene and display of dominance, Edmond cuts off Rani’s braid to demonstrate a point about not destroying the tea leaves. Yet, Rani genuinely cares for Edmond, staying with him even as other Indian workers grow angry at the layoffs and making sure his genital rash was taken care of. Unlike his great-grandfather, Edmond is more aware of his privilege and power over Rani and in his reminiscing of a childhood memory of lying together in the tea cart, he wishes they could remain in that simple world.
Tying these stories together is a contemporary one of Meera, a young tea sorter preparing to move her family from the village to Mumbai for a better life. Meera seems to be an incarnate of Rani, as they are both played by the same actress, but they face very different futures. Meera’s husband makes the decision to take the family to Mumbai without consulting Meera and though she can see his logic, she is reluctant to leave the tea plantation and her identity. There is much family history tied into hand-gathering of tea leaves and brewing the most perfect of teas.
While Smith’s play explores the interesting and important dynamic behind colonial relationships with very compelling stories, it suits a full performance far more than a semi-staged play reading. There were a number of actions that were narrated out loud for the audience’s imagining and some left the actors standing awkwardly on the stage while the supposed action took place. Nevertheless, the actors did a splendid job considering the short preparation time and they gave the audience a very worthwhile show.
In the Kingdom of Cha ran on 14 and 15 February at the Southbank Theatre.
4 out of 5 stars