By Bridgette M. Redman

It can get rough being the ideal woman. It’s why sometimes her story needs to get retold so she can get a bit of her own back.

The “Ramayana” is an epic folktale and spiritual myth in the Indian and Hindu tradition. Over the centuries, it’s been told and retold in many interpretations and forms. It is one of the best-known epics, featuring the story of Ram, for whom it is named, and Sita, a celestial beauty who is born directly from the earth and who is often held up as the ideal woman and wife.

Playwright Lavina Jadhwani started writing about Sita in 2006 after realizing that the stories she was told as a child about the famous lovers only scratched the surface. Now her play, “The Sitayana (or ‘How to Make an Exit’),” will virtually premiere at East West Players Saturday, Sept. 25, to Sunday, Sept. 27.

Actually, it will get three world premieres performed by three actors at different stages of life, providing yet another layer of complexity to this Indian folk hero. East West Players is partnering with San Francisco’s EnActe Arts and New York City’s Hypokrit Productions to present the premieres.

Sita as a hero

Jadhwani stressed that while she fictionalized and extrapolated the context for Sita in her play, the events are real. It all comes from the various retellings of the epic story.

“It’s a story many of us know, but there are so many different versions that are in different regions and languages,” Jadhwani said. “I grew up with Ram and Sita and was told about Sita proving her purity, but at the time, I didn’t know what that meant.

“When I was in my early 20s, I went, ‘Wait a minute, she walked through fire?’ I didn’t know that part of the story. When I got deeper into it, I found they kicked her out when she was pregnant. Why aren’t we telling this version of the story?”

In the traditional tale, Ram wins Sita with his “manliness” and they live in luxury in a palace until Ram’s stepmother has them exiled to the forest.

They live a simple life, having adventures until Sita is kidnapped by a demon king and held hostage for a year. Ram eventually rescues her and, even though she had turned down all the demon king’s advances and slept in his garden rather than his home, Ram rejects her, accusing her of sleeping in another man’s place.

Different tales have different versions of what happens next. Many say Sita then threw herself on a funeral pyre in anguish but was spared by the flames because she was so pure. They return home to the palace where Ram takes his rightful place as king. They are happy until Sita gets pregnant with twins and Ram overhears a launderer bad-mouthing Sita’s purity. So, he exiles Sita to the woods, where she lives for 14 years, raising her twin sons.

Eventually, Ram finds her and claims the boys. Sita has had enough of things and asks her Mother Earth to open up and swallow her.

“The story of Ram and Sita is one as old as time,” said Snehal Desai, the East West Players’ producing artistic director. “What Lavina has brilliantly done here is reframed the story through the lens of modern relationships, along the way upending stereotypes of femininity and providing a refresh to dated views of chastity, commitment and duty.”

Jadhwani said it is not her intent to offend with this play, as she was raised Hindu and still practices. But she appreciates how the deities in their religion are human and fallible.

“I felt like to an extent, as much as the story had wronged Sita, it had also wronged Ram. He’s hella flawed,” Jadhwani said. “I’m not about being blasphemous, but this is the story.”

Desai said the way the story is told feels particularly relevant to what has happened to people during the pandemic. He pointed out that Sita’s journey is one of isolation and loneliness.

“She gets outcast and lives in the world, she’s kidnapped and has to live in seclusion in that way,” Desai said. “There was just a resonance of this woman who for so many periods of her life is just alone and how she reconciles that—it felt very resonant to where we are today and all that is going on in the world.”

Jadhwani said this is the first play she wrote just out of grad school in 2015. However, it was put aside after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. It took the pandemic to pick it up again.

She said it was important to investigate Sita as an ideal woman and perfect wife. The more she learned the story, the more it appealed to her. She pointed out that the “ideal woman” raised her children in the forest and then said, “Naw, Ram, we’re done,” when he shows up again, making a dramatic exit.

It wasn’t about changing the story, Jadhwani said, but reframing it.

One of the major reframings is that her play is a solo show. Most of the productions she had experienced involved a huge cast with masks and a major emphasis on the battle.

“The battle gets two matter-of-fact sentences (in my version),” Jadhwani said. “We know these stories of epic battles and the chariots and golden arrows and the robin with the 10 heads. But what about the battle of the woman who stayed faithful and lost track of the days? That is a type of warfare.”

Premiere casts three actors of different ages

Director Reena Dutt came up with the concept of having three actors and three designs for the premiere of “The Sitayana.” Jadhwani has been thrilled with the outcome.

“At the core of this story is the idea of empowering more female south Asian storytellers,” Jadhwani said.

As the show is being produced virtually, audiences can choose the version they want to see or purchase access to all three.

One version takes place with a teenage Sita in her childhood bedroom. Another is rooted in the comic book aesthetic, which is how many Indians Jadhwani’s age grew up reading the stories. Another is an abstract one using henna art.

“Sita is progressively at different ages for both of those,” Desai said. “What stage in a woman’s life do they want to hear the story from? And then artistically, what do they want the world to feel like?”

Desai said the first takes place in a teenager’s bedroom with an interpretation he describes as being “down and dirty.” She makes figurines, posters and shadow puppets to evoke the world of the story. It features Nikita Chaudhry as Sita and is called “Sita’s Slumber Party.”

The second features Sheetal Gandhi as Sita, and it is called “Sita’s Mehndi Party.”

It focuses on her marriage and invites the audience to be a wedding guest at a party that melds traditional henna art with epic festivities. Mehndi is a form of temporary body art and skin decoration using a paste created from the powdered dry leaves of the henna plant — called henna in the West. The 4,000-year-old body art is popular among Indian women.

The third uses comic book silhouettes. Sita is not animated, but she is a figure in her own graphic novel. Minita Gandhi plays Sita, and it is called “Amar Chitra Sita.” Amar Chitra Katha is a publisher of Indian comics and graphic novels, mostly based on religious legends and epics or folktales and cultural stories.

Because the shows are virtual, East West can present it in a couple ways. It will be available on demand until Oct. 17, but there will also be several livestreamed performances. Those attending get to vote on the version they want to watch.

The curtain time is at 8 p.m., and the show will be followed with a talkback tied to a scene from the play. Topics will range from cultural adaptations of classical stories, “Brown girls do it well,” and one where an Asian female artist shares her experiences.

Desai said each show is a different immersive experience, even though it uses the same script for each one.

“There are three different worlds, but the text is recognizable,” Desai said. “You see how different things get accentuated or different details emerge that you didn’t see the first time. It is the same story that you watch in these different ways. There is amazing theatricality in the piece. … You see the particular ways that artists interpret stories.”

He said it was meaningful to him as a man to help understand what it is like to be a woman and what the gaze is on femininity in South Asian culture.

Jadhwani, who sat in on the rehearsals remotely, said it is a tremendous honor for her that the East West Players, EnActe Arts and Hypokrit Productions are performing them.

“Not only one but, in fact, three Asian American companies from both ends of the country are producing this thing. That’s phenomenal,” Jadhwani said.

She hopes that such a collaboration will help reach the people of the next generation who are just learning the story of Sita and Ram.

“I think a lot about how I grew up with this story missing certain information,” Jadhwani said. “It was as unfair to me as it was to Sita. I don’t want to change the story. I love the story. But we know that how we center and who we center in stories informs how we view the world, so I wanted to open up our world a little more.”

“The Sitayana (or ‘How to Make an Exit’)” by Lavina Jadhwani

WHERE: East West Players virtual season

WHEN: Sept. 25 to Sept. 27, Oct. 5 to 7 and Oct. 15 to 17
and on-demand through Oct. 17

COST: $7.99