By George Basler
Sri Lanka has been called “the pearl of the Indian Ocean” for its climate, scenery and a rich cultural tradition that encompasses music, dance and the visual arts.
Southern Tier residents will have the opportunity to sample this culture when the Sri Lankan play Bera Handa is performed Nov. 16-19 in the Watters Theater at Binghamton University.
The play has “a very comedic plot,” said Lakshmi Damayanthi Bulathsinghala, a tenure-track instructor at BU, who is directing the production. “(It’s a spectacle) with dance, music, costumes, lighting and sets all working together.”
The play is very much an inter-cultural endeavor. Playwright Bandhula Jayawardhana adapted it from a fragment of an ancient Greek play by Sophocles, infusing Sri Lankan music, dance and costumes into the work. It has been freshly translated into English.
Bera Handa has been performed in its native language and is widely popular in its native country, Bulathsinghala said, noting: “Everyone knows one of its songs.” But the BU production marks the first time the folk drama has been performed in English. It’s also the first time it’s been staged in the United States.
A native of Sri Lanka, Bulathsinghala has lived in Binghamton for more than 15 years while earning two degrees at BU: a master’s in theater in 2010 and a doctorate in philosophy, interpretation and culture in 2018. She now splits her time between Binghamton and her native country, where she is known as an actress and film producer. At BU, she has taught a range of courses, including ones focused on South Asian dance and theater and on South Asian culture and society.
Bulathsinghala said she wanted to direct Bera Handa because “I love plays with dance and music.” She also wants to expose students and the community to Sri Lankan culture.
The 15 cast members are all students who come from various departments at the university, not just theater. While most were not familiar with Sri Lankan culture, they had “an interest, curiosity and willingness to take chances,” Bulathsinghala said.
Directing the play has been a challenge, but very satisfying at the same time, she added, noting: “I feel very happy and proud of myself for doing this.”
The English translation was done by Sula Mahagam Arachchi, a doctoral student in the Translation, Research, and Instruction Program. Jithendra Vidyapathy, a native of Sri Lanka and currently a master’s student in the Theatre Department, is the assistant choreographer. Bulathsinghala’s daughter, Gayani, also a student in the master’s theater program, is the costume designer.
Bulathsinghala’s career will take her back to her native country early next year to screen a film she produced. She also is working on producing her next film about a Sri Lankan student in the U.S. She plans to use Binghamton University and the local community as locations.
Her first scholarly book in the United States, The Legacy of Stylistic Theatre in the Creation of a Modern Sinhala Drama in Sri Lanka, is also due for release next year.
“I love Binghamton for its all four seasons,” Bulathsinghala said. It’s a community that is peaceful and friendly, she added.
IF YOU GO: The Sri Lankan folk drama
Bera Handa will be presented Nov. 16-19 in the Watters Theater of Binghamton University’s Anderson Center for the Performing Arts. Performances are 8 p.m. Nov. 16-18 and 2 p.m. Nov 18 and 19. Tickets at $10 t0 $20 are available at http://www.anderson.binghamton and the Anderson Center box office (607-777.ARTS).