nytheatre.com review by Alyssa Simon
White Cotton takes place in the past and present life of Neelam,
a first-generation American woman of South Asian heritage. Three
actresses portray her at various points in her life: as a child
reluctantly listening to her grandmother’s tales of another time and
culture, as an independent and vibrant woman in her mid-twenties, and
then as a widow in her forties.
August 15, 2002
Marilyn Gholson plays Neelam in her later years and serves as the narrator. Through flashbacks to her earlier life we see the people and events that have shaped who she is today. Sunita Mukhi as Deeda, a Bengali term for grandmother, is Neelam’s earliest influence. In one of the strongest scenes in the play, she gives young Neelam a white handkerchief scented with sandalwood and embroidered with the initials "VR." Neelam does not understand the importance of receiving such a gift and would rather listen to Led Zeppelin than her grandmother’s stories. Later, the meaning of the handkerchief becomes clear and serves as a symbol of the vast differences in choice and opportunity between women in modern American society and the women of her grandmother’s youth.
As a young woman, Neelam (played by Reena Dutt who is also the playwright) has the freedom to go on spur-of-the-moment road trips with her non-Indian boyfriend, stay in hotels with him for the weekend, and even propose marriage. The marriage is performed by a justice of the peace and she phones her parents later to give the news. They are happy for her and there are no conflicts about tradition or marrying out of one’s faith or culture. I understand that this easy acceptance of Neelam’s choice by her parents is intended to highlight the contrast between her generation and her grandmother’s, however, there is no dramatic conflict. The grandmother’s story, which I do not want to give away here, would be a great play on its own because it has obstacles and suspense.
Reena Dutt and Jonathan Wilde (in the role of Neelam’s boyfriend, John) have great chemistry. It’s easy to see that they are in love. Sunita Mukhi gives a standout performance as Deeda. According to her bio, she works frequently in New York City. I will definitely look for her name in hopes of seeing her perform again.