The modern stage provokes its audiences. It never allows you to leave the theatre with your beliefs intact. That’s how I want my students to feel when they leave my classroom.

Meenakshi Ponnuswami

When she enrolled at Delhi University, Meenakshi Ponnuswami, English, already knew she wanted to be a professor.

“I grew up on the campus of Delhi University,” she says. “My parents were both professors.  I was very much in the shade of a tree my parents had grown.”

She loved English, particularly Shakespeare. But in her sophomore year, a friend introduced her to a play about two guys waiting around for someone, not knowing if he would show up. The play was Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

“A door opened for me that day, and I found modern drama,” says Ponnuswami. “That stuck with me for the rest of my career.”

Although her scholarly interests now focus on contemporary British and American theater, Ponnuswami still teaches Beckett in her Theater of the Absurd course, one of several surveys of modern drama she teaches at Bucknell.

“When I teach the Theater of the Absurd, I tell my students to go tell a friend to read a good book, because you never know what kind of impact that could have in someone's life.”

Ponnuswami has taught dramatic literature at Bucknell since 1991. She has recently developed new courses on ethnic comedy, masculinity in modern drama and the theater of the Civil Rights Movement.

Many of her courses emerge from her research on historical drama, which explores issues of authenticity and falsehood in theatrical recreations of the past, as well as problems that arise when our cherished beliefs about history are challenged.

Ponnuswami’s recent research on black British and British Asian theater examines the transformation of diasporic or immigrant cultures into ones that see themselves as fully British and part of a modern, multicultural state.

Her new class on ethnic comedy evolved from her related interest in European and American debates about Islam and the veil. These subjects are, she says, “deadly serious,” but they are also hilarious elements of stand-up comedy routines of young British women of Muslim descent.

Ponnuswami examines not only how these performers “recycle” ethnic and gender stereotypes about their cultures of origin, but also how they challenge popular misconceptions about tradition and modernity.

“The modern stage provokes its audiences,” Ponnuswami says. “It never allows you to leave the theatre with your beliefs intact. That’s how I want my students to feel when they leave my classroom.”

Posted Sept. 22, 2016