Multiracial cast and exotic setting in streetwise Sultans

Left to right, Carmela Sison, Nimet Kanji and Nadeem Phillip perform in Sultans of the Street, which starts Oct. 30 for a two-week run at Waterfront Theatre. Photo by Tim Matheson

Sultans of the Street

Oct. 30  to Nov. 13


Waterfront Theatr


Tickets and info:

$35 (adults)/$29 (seniors/students)/$18 (3-18 years) at

In Vancouver, Carousel Theatre for Young People is known for big-name, fable-like productions. But an upcoming play is quite different from shows like Seussical and James and the Giant Peach, as director Marcus Youssef points out.

“It’s a relatively new Canadian play, with no name recognition at all,” he said. “And it’s about street kids in India.”

In Sultans of the Street, the worlds of two sets of kids collide on the streets of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). Brothers Prakash (Nadeem Phillip ) and the younger Ojha (Parmiss Sehat) are playing hooky when they meet Mala (


Sison) and her sibling Chun Chun (Amitai Marmorstein). The brothers are from a comfortable home; Mala and Chun Chun, who are watched over by a mysterious aunt (Nimet Kanji), spend their days on the streets begging for money while dressed as Indian gods.

The Carousel Theatre production will be the second iteration of Sultans of the Street, following a premiere run in Toronto in 2014. It’s written by Toronto-based playwright/actor Anusree Roy, who was nominated for a Governor General’s Award for English-language drama in 2012 for her play Brothel #9. Coincidentally, Touchstone Theatre is mounting that play in November.

To cast Sultans of the Street, Youssef and production dramaturge Rohit Chokhani (who is also artistic producer of Diwali Fest; Sultans of the Street opens on the same day as the start of the Hindu festival), reached out to the city’s South Asian community. Youssef says he wanted to make the cast — which includes Nimet Kanji, Amitai Marmorstein, Nadeem Phillip, Parmiss Sehat, and Carmela Sison — as multiracial as possible.

“It would be a perfectly legitimate way to cast everyone as South Asian,” said Youssef, who is also the Artistic Director of Neworld Theatre Company.

“But I don’t want kids to come and see the show and look at it and go, ‘Oh that’s that exotic, other place, where bad things happen to kids,’ and for it to be completely like another thing. I’m interested in kids coming in going, ‘Oh, that’s another place, this is different,’ but seeing a completely mixed cast that looks like their classroom.”

The actors have at least 10 years on their pre-adolescent characters. One of Youssef’s tasks as director is to ensure that the actors don’t act down to their younger roles.

“The tendency, particularly for actors who don’t have experience in this form, is to do stereotypical kid behaviours that are totally condescending,” he said.

Youssef recalls advice given him while he was completing his MFA in Creative Writing. He had complained to screenwriter Peggy Thompson of his trouble writing female characters.

“‘Just pretend they’re men,’” he remembers her telling him.

His advice to his actors for playing kids is similar. “There are certain kind of physical things that are important,” he said. “But in terms of what the characters want, how they act and how they go after those things, it’s just as important, just as real, just as significant, as in any other acting job. Getting that stereotype out of their heads is critical.”

Just as important is making sure that the audience, in this case mostly kids, is entertained.

“I love making work for kids, I love kid audiences. They’re the best. They don’t lie. If they’re bored, they’re moving. They’re absolutely transparent.”

Youssef is confident Sultans of the Street will inspire a minimum of fidgeting.

“It’s a great play,” he said. “It’s about something. In some ways it’s challenging, but it’s super-funny, super-accessible, really high energy. I love it.”

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