When Philosophy Professor Brandon Polite attended Knox as a student, he knew that the confidence and charisma of his fellow student and this year’s commencement speaker Vir Das would take him far in life.
As a freshman, Polite quickly befriended his RA in Seymour, who was also good friends with Das. Das, he mentioned, had been wanting to start a band for a while and so the three of them started practicing in the RA’s dorm. With Polite on guitar and Das on vocals, the group added the melodies of Rage Against the Machine, Collective Soul, Jimi Hendrix and Bryan Adams to their already rowdy floor.
“Third floor of Seymour was a zoo,” Polite said. “I feel like they put the lowest of the low there and then there were a ragtag bunch of us misfits. We weren’t the lowest of the low but we weren’t the best of the best.”
Polite described Das as outgoing, affable and confident. Though Polite did not keep in touch with Das much after his RA transferred out of Knox, the Smith V. Brand Endowed Chair in Theatre Arts Liz Carlin Metz was able to watch as Das grew in character and in capabilities as a theatre major.
“Over the course of his time here he developed a lot more range in his dramatic capabilities,” Carlin Metz said. “[He was] more willing to allow himself to be vulnerable on stage. His comic skills were always present.”
Most notable for Metz was Das’ role as lead character Andrei Nikolayevich Bolkonsky in the Repertory Theatre Term’s production of “War and Peace” in 2001.
“The character tends to be something of a suffering character,” she said. “He was very very good at the sort of internalized resentment and frustration of the character and also lovely and tender with the character Andrei marries, Natasha.”
In addition to his participation in theatre, Metz recalls his first attempt at stand-up comedy Ð a sketch he called “Brown Men Can’t Hump” which was a play on an American comedy movie titled “White Men Can’t Jump.” While she wasn’t able to see the performance due to being off campus at the time, Metz remembers hearing about its success. She feels that Das embodies the values and ideals of Knox, as an entrepreneur and as someone who had endless determination and perseverance. This perseverance, she said, is what has led to his current success as an entertainer.
“The spirit of Knox of ‘put your shoulder to the wheel and do the heavy lifting’ that’s what he’s done. That’s how you build a career, it’s not just magic,” she said.
Like Metz, Assistant Professor of Theatre and technical director Craig Choma praises Das’ ability to be innovative and adventurous with his educational and career choices. Despite not having a specific curriculum dedicated to comedic acting, Das was not discouraged from pursuing this path.
“For him to have identified this area that he wanted to explore and feel comfortable enough at Knox to go ‘yeah, I can do this’ and to have a support system in place that allowed him to do it . . . It speaks volumes of a Knox student if they set their sights high, they can reach them,” Choma said.
Polite agrees that Das is a true representation of the values and ideals pursued in a Knox education.
“He’s a huge comedian, he has made a name for himself,” he said. “His standup oftentimes embodies the value of a liberal arts education, especially his bits on intercultural understanding or misunderstanding.”
The three agree that Das is a more than ideal candidate to speak at this year’s commencement ceremony. Having an alum come back especially one who has used the lessons learned from his Knox education to pursue his career helps affirm the college’s values of determination and innovation.