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A lesser-known play at the Stratford Festival may spark some interesting dialogue among theatre patrons this season.
The Komagata Maru Incident is a history-based show about a 1914 ship full of Sikh emigrants from the British Raj who were denied entry to Vancouver.
The casting, writing, music and costuming challenges the audience to sit through a potentially troubling piece while feeling complicit in much of the racist, anti-immigration dialogue that takes place on stage.
While many Canadians pride themselves in being inclusive and polite, the show touches on a not-so-great historical moment rooted in Canada’s colonial past.
Further troubling the play is the director Keira Loughran’s decision to cast an Indigenous actress, Quelemia Sparrow, as T.S., a character whose dialogue comes from racist parliamentary speeches of that time period, according to King’s University College writing studies professor Michelle Hartley.
Hartley, who taught the play in a Canadian Drama course at Western University, gave a table talk on the show while it was in previews and said the show elicited a lot of conversation amongst the audience.
Hartley said the initials T.S. are often thought to represent The System, The State or The Spectator by scholars and that Sharon Pollock, the playwright, describes the character as a Master of Ceremonies of the play.
“He’s also kind of a puppeteer,” Hartley said. “He puts words in the mouth of one of the main characters . . . the troubling part is that T.S.’s words are racist rhetoric.
The play acknowledged the entire incident occurred on Musqueam First Nation territory by opening the show with a traditional flag of their people on the set.
But Hartley noted that by having an Indigenous actress — who toward the end of the show is dressed in Musqueam First Nation regalia — speak racist dialogue, there is a potential for audience members to misinterpret the message the director is trying to make.
“If the play is suggesting the power of native nations, excellent,” Hartley said. “But suggesting they were complicit with racist immigration policies of 1914? That’s not accurate.”
Hartley did note Sparrow does a great job at playing up a trickster aspect of T.S. The trickster figure is common in Indigenous myths and is a comical character who can take many forms and can often be a troublemaker.
“You can connect with the idea of the importance of a trickster figure who’s pulling the strings . . . who’s interests may not be racism (but) anarchy or trouble,” Hartley said. “So my finding the costuming troubling is maybe exactly what the director was going for.”
Loughran said she wanted to tell this story in a 2017 context and was wondering where the Indigenous presence was in the play.
“The possibility of (the Indigenous presence) being T.S. fascinated me because that character has the most power in the play . . . and takes on the job of framing the telling of the story,” Loughran said.
“It’s the idea of an Indigenous person taking on The System.”
Loughran said she maintained a constant conversation with Sparrow to ensure they both were working within her comfort level when discussing the performance.
She said they’ve also found connections to reconciliation in the show. She said the company has come to realize that through Canada’s reconciliation process with First Nations people, a template for any immigrant to be part of it also exists and that there’s an alliance between immigrants and First Nations people that could be formed as well.
In terms of costuming, T.S. wears a ring-master-like uniform through most of the show and changes into regalia toward the end. Loughran said this choice represents her taking on The System to tell the story and then re-taking her authority as an Indigenous person.
“The most important thing about the character is that they have authority in that space,” Loughran said.
“It’d be too easy to do the show with a white guy playing a bad white guy. I’m interested in seeing people of every colour making decisions for reasons that are complex, challenging and tragic.”
This is not to say the Sikh-Indian nationalist history is lost in the show.
Kiran Ahluwahlia, who plays Woman, one of the emigrants on the ship, matches T.S. in terms of prominence. While her character does not speak any lines, she sings throughout the play and tells a North Indian fable which was added to the play’s text for this performance.
“T.S. is the host of our story but the woman is the catalyst. We need both of them,” Loughran said.
“It’s not a museum piece, we’re not stuck in history. We have to think of what these people could be in today’s cultural context.”
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