Vancouver actor, writer, and theatre-maker Adele Noronha says that her heart lies on the West Coast of two countries. She spent her first 11 years on the West Coast of India in the Mumbai suburb of Andheri East. It’s home to many film studios and production houses.
Most of her 23 years in Canada have been in Metro Vancouver.
Near the start of a phone interview with Pancouver, Noronha mentions her local actor friend Munish Sharma. It’s intended to demonstrate contradictions within the South Asian diasporic identity.
“I always joke with him that I grew up in Bollywood and he grew up in the Prairies, and yet he knows more Bollywood things than I do,” Noronha quips. “The Prairie boy can sing all these songs and I can’t keep up.”
Noronha is of Goan (Portuguese) and Anglo-Indian (British) ancestry, which is not unusual in cosmopolitan Mumbai. And she describes herself as “quite anglicized”.
“This is part of what made me good for all the classical work I did during the first decade of my career,” the theatre artist explains. “I was good for big stages because I looked one way and I could still speak the Queen’s speech.”
Noronha shares insights at Monsoon Festival
Noronha performed in several William Shakespeare plays produced by Bard on the Beach. They included Two Gentlemen of Verona, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, The Tempest, The Merchant of Venice, Timon of Athens, and Lysistrata,
“There is a disproportionate privilege for those of us who are either halfies or have grown up in a really anglicized way,” she continues, “because we get absorbed into the mainstream theatre in Canada quite easily.”
In 2017, Noronha won a Jessie Richardson Award for Best Lead Actress in the large theatre category for playing Rekha, an Indian sex slave in Brothel #9. And she earned positive reviews for playing Anne in Walt Whitman’s Secret, Samira in Happy Place, and a female suicide bomber in The Only Good Indian.
“I spent my 20s being a performer and an actor, frequently being the baby in the room,” she says. “And I learned from every production I was ever in. It was deeply meaningful.”
However, these spaces frequently left her feeling isolated from her cultural community.
Noronha has since shared lessons as a professional performer, taken workshops, and connected to her community at different editions of the Monsoon Festival of Performing Arts. On August 20, she returned to the festival to host Momentum, a play-reading event at the Cultch. Noronha, Preeti Kaur Dhaliwal, and Skekhar Paleja directed actors Andy Kalirai, Aryo Khakpour, Byron Peters, Chandni Appadurai, and Sabrina Vellani.
“There is so much talent in the South Asian community and there is so much momentum happening,” Noronha says.
Adaptation enhanced acting skills
One play was Indian writer Manjula Padmanbhan’s sci-fi dystopian Harvest, which revolves around westerners harvesting organs in poor countries. The actors also read Pakistani-American Ayad Akhtar’s Junk, focused on junk bond dealers in the 1980s. The third was Toronto-based Ravi Jain and Miriam Fernandes’ epic Mahabharata.
Noronha describes the Monsoon Festival as “an incredibly welcoming space for us to come and be experts and learners”. The festival reflects the breadth and depth of Metro Vancouver artists who trace their roots back to South Asia.
That was apparent to her at the opening night reception, where people mingled and discussed their projects. Noronha found it to be a relief to attend an opening event where she wasn’t “representing something”.
“We were having exciting conversations about experiences,” Noronha says. “There was nothing uncommon about me—and I love that. I crave that so much.”
In Canada, she’s certainly used to her identity being “flattened” in mainstream spaces. This dates back to when her family immigrated to the Vancouver suburb of Richmond. She was 11 years old at the time.
“I think I would have been a very different person if I arrived in Surrey,” Noronha candidly states. “I think I would have kept my original accent, to be honest; I would have a few more affirmations of identity.”
In India, her skin colour wasn’t a big issue. There were family members who were white-skinned and others who had darker skin. They had a greater everyday knowledge of complex cultural specificities. But in Canada, people made assumptions about her before she even opened her mouth.
“I was very depressed,” Noronha recalls. “I had a terrible time.”
Years later after entering Studio 58 at Langara College, she was told that she learned to act in those days. As an adolescent, she coped by adapting.
“I learned to listen to accents and I learned to morph into whatever the social requirement or social kind of space required me to be,” Noronha says.
Noronha plays the long game
Nowadays, she’s delighted that she can channel this survival skill into something celebratory. But she also has thoughtful words about some immigrants’ unconscious impulse to assimilate.
“In order to practise assimilation, there has to be fear,” the actor says. “There really was a fear of not being able to access resources [and] being disconnected from the people around you.”
Her career hasn’t been entirely smooth. She reveals that she drew upon her difficult childhood immigration experience in many of her roles. She also played several parts with a sexual-assault narrative, which was hard on her.
“By the age of 30, I knew how to throw myself on the ground, choreographed—have my hair pulled and thrown onto the ground—because it kept repeating in different plays,” Noronha says.
After a decade of performing on-stage, she was feeling burned out. Plus, Noronha faced financial struggles when COVID-19 shut down live theatre for extended periods.
So she put her career on pause during the pandemic and learned how to become a fullstack software developer. Working in this field offers an opportunity for her, as a first-generation immigrant, to build financial momentum to offer more security to family members, including those who come in the future. Yet she still plays the “long game” in theatre.
Her goal is to be on-stage at the age of 80, even if that requires some adjustments to her artistic practice.
“The long game means I might not get to act full-time,” Noronha acknowledges. “I have had the privileges of all my professional standings in the past and all my relationships.”
A Poem for Rabia
Sadly, Noronha’s last living grandparent passed away in India during the pandemic. At that time, she was taking a break from Vancouver and living in Toronto. But in the aftermath of this loss, Noronha had an epiphany: her place in this country is on the West Coast, so she returned.
Despite being back in Vancouver, she will perform the title role in A Poem for Rabia, in Toronto from October 17 to November 12. Nikki Shaffeeullah wrote the Tarragon Theatre production, which is billed as “an epic journey across time, oceans, and tectonic shifts in political history”.
Noronha’s character, Rabia, is placed on a ship as an indentured labourer. She’s sent from Calcutta (now Kolkata) to the Caribbean in 1853.
Another character, Betty, is a secretary in the governor’s office in British Guiana in 1953 amid rumblings in the colony for independence.
Meanwhile, the third character, Zahra, lives in Tkaronto in 2053 after Canada has abolished prisons.
“Nikki Shaffeeullah is an incredible activist and facilitator,” Noronha states. “This is her debut play but it is so rich with thought and poetry and empowerment—though it’s not centred around trauma. It is centred around us finding each other and finding that strength that transcends generations.”
In closing the interview, Noronha reiterates her wish to be in the theatre for a long time. She says good-naturedly that she wants to grow old with her fellow artists, whom she loves.
“We have intergenerational stories in the South Asian community,” Noronha declares. “I want to be an auntie on-stage and a grandmother on-stage so those stories get to be told.”
Moreover, she’s eager to share her set of skills with the next generation.
“In order to make that happen, I wish to hold an expansiveness in my heart,” she adds, “and share that expansiveness with others.”