Lipica Shah never considered herself a fan of cricket.
But ask her about a game she never really watched or grew up with and she gets positively giddy, even pointing to a Netflix episode of the show “Explained” that teaches the game in 15 minutes.
Before acting in her latest theatre production, Shah never played cricket. But in preparing for her role, she had to grasp the quirky game’s many nuances. And she learned a very important lesson in the process.
“I know that all of the body parts become sore,” said Shah with a gregarious laugh.
American Conservatory Theater’s newest production, the world premiere of Kate Attwell’s comedy/drama “Testmatch” uses the game of cricket as a jumping off point.
Cricket, often compared to baseball except with two bases instead of four among many other details, is a metaphor for a much more serious dynamic – the role of colonialism in modern Indian society.
In the play that follows two time-traveling narratives, tensions have risen in the locker room of a women’s cricket match between India and England during a test match, which is the longest format of cricket, lasting five days. Relationship secrets are exposed, and a fierce examination of influencers as well as the sport’s integrity come to light. The play delves deep into the past, unpacking how colonialism and white advantage has shaped India’s modern society and the collateral damage that suffocating policy has caused, shown through the lens of cricket.
It is terribly fitting that the play is receiving its world premiere in San Francisco, a city where the disparity between the haves and have nots seems to rise daily. But in order to understand the present, whether it’s modern India or the Bay Area, the past must be dealt with for that understanding to take shape.
A.C.T. artistic director Pam MacKinnon, who is making her Strand Theater directorial debut, was drawn to the play’s sense of humor as well as to the women of the play, who both behave and don’t behave badly.
“The play really uses cricket as a lens to unpack the legacy of violence and imperialism, which is violent,” said MacKinnon. “Racism is a byproduct and it’s not bred in the bone. These are huge topics, topics we talk about in San Francisco, a really pressurized city, and that makes the play feel relevant.”
For Shah (whose first name is pronounced Lih-PEEK-uh), a New Jersey native, the play has taken on quite a personal bent. Her mother’s roots are in Calcutta (known as Kolkata since 2001) in the state of West Bengal. And going through the American school system, where this history was not explored, all the dramaturgy in the play was new information.
“There was so much history I didn’t know, and the biggest thing I learned about was the Bengali famine of the 1800s,” said Shah. “My mom’s side being from Calcutta, I felt that tie very deeply, and I didn’t realize that colonialism took place because a corporation decided to come into India under the guise of trade, slowly taking over and behaving like a government.”
The English East India Company was a corporation that was designed to exploit trade between the East, Southeast Asia and India. The company, formed on the final day of 1600, dominated the region until it ceased operations in 1874.
Shah’s discoveries of these world-changing dynamics took place as soon as she read the play for the first time. And immediately after that first reading, she realized her concept of colonialism was more surface level knowledge. But the importance of telling the story in the way Attwell wrote it is a thrilling chance for Shah to share a true identity on stage.
“It feels really refreshing to tell a story about people from this play that are three dimensional,” said Shah. “Lately, new plays are giving us culturally specific characters, and it’s such a relief that the American theatre is going in this direction and these stories are given a platform.
One of those stories she performed took place a year ago at the Manhattan Theatre Club, when she played the role of “Lovi” in the Jaclyn Backhaus world premiere of “India Pale Ale.” It was a critical role for her career for a very important reason.
“(Prior to ‘India Pale Ale) I’d never before played a character that wasn’t an immigrant nor a daughter of immigrants, so it feels great to tell a story like this one, and I am grateful.”
Having an actor like Shah originate this role is exactly what MacKinnon needs in order to tell the story.
“She doesn’t have a dishonest performing bone in her body and that’s always good,” said MacKinnon. “She’s very much in both scene one and in scene two, and she’s a person we want an audience to follow, sort of like a guide.”
As a performer who is always looking for challenging roles to engage with, Shah is very happy that A.C.T. is giving this play a chance. It’s one tangible way in which equity can be pursued and ultimately achieved in terms of how all marginalized populations are represented.
“I hope the people that come to our show are those who maybe don’t go to the theatre,” said Shah. “As theatre programming changes, who is allowed to come to shows I think is changing, and people are seeing a bit of themselves reflected.
“It’s their show.”
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
American Conservatory Theater presents the world premiere of “Testmatch”
Written by Kate Attwell
Directed by Pam MacKinnon
The Strand Theater
1127 Market Street, San Francisco, CA
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Through Dec. 8th
Tickets range from $15 – $70
For tickets, call (415) 749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org