The Komagata Maru Incident: a character’s struggle between doing what’s right and doing what he’s told

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There are no heroes in Sharon Pollock’s play, The Komagata Maru Incident. There are only characters that do the wrong thing for what they believe to be the right reason, and characters that want to do the right thing, but aren’t in a position to do so.

And above it all there is T.S., the Master of Ceremonies and ever-omniscient narrator of the play, brought to life for the Stratford Festival by Quelemia Sparrow. When dressed in her top hat and red coat, T.S. gleefully orchestrates the misery of those 376 Sikh and Indian passengers trapped onboard the Japanese steam ship after which the play was named, and when she is wearing her Indigenous costume, she leads those characters who carried out that misery to reap the consequences of their actions.

In the original version of the play, Pollock wrote the character of T.S. and every other character portrayed onstage for white actors. In The Stratford Festival’s reimagining of The Komagata Maru Incident, as directed by Keira Loughran, a creatively diverse cast sheds light on issues beyond the mistreatment and ultimate fate of those 376 passengers stuck onboard the steamer in 1914 Vancouver.

Loughran’s choice to cast Diana Tso as Evy and Jasmine Chen as Sophie, prostitutes at the brothel in which much of the play takes place, explores the marginalization of Chinese immigrants in early 20th century Canada.

While both women are recent immigrants to Canada themselves, Sophie agrees entirely with the government’s efforts to keep the Sikh and Indian passengers from disembarking for two long months, eventually declaring the ousting of the Japanese steamer from Canadian waters as a victory for Canada. By siding with authorities, Sophie avoids putting her newfound status as a prostitute – a relatively comfortable lot in life in comparison to the hard labour and destitution many other Chinese immigrants endured at the time – at jeopardy.

Evy, on the other hand, sees the Canadian Government’s hypocrisy in turning away 376 subjects of the British Crown, sympathizes with their mistreatment, and relates her own experiences as a new immigrant in Canada with that of the passengers’ on The Komagata Maru. Using her relationship with chief intelligence officer, William Hopkinson – played by Omar Alex Khan – Evy tries her best to convince him of the government’s wrongdoings.

Considering himself superior to those of a different skin colour despite the revelation that his mother was Punjabi, Hopkinson forcefully ignores Evy’s pleas for humanity, suppressing his own doubts and misgivings regarding the passengers’ mistreatment at his own hands.

“One has to make commitments to one side or another,” Hopkinson tells Evy, as if to justify his actions.

“What side are you on,” Evy replies.

“The winning side,” Hopkinson says.

All the while T.S., who seamlessly steps in and out of the roles of narrator, Hopkinson’s boss at the immigration office, the embodiment of his inner conflict, and a Member of Parliament, dances and weaves her way around each of the moral arguments and physical obstacles that block the government from achieving its ultimate goal; keeping Canada white.

Loughran’s choice to cast T.S. with an Indigenous actor seems to give new meaning to the character’s wry grins and playful dancing as she successfully convinces Hopkinson to act on behalf of the government’s racist agenda.

It’s almost as if, as a member of Canada’s Indigenous community, Sparrow’s T.S. intrinsically understands and openly mocks the mechanisms employed by the white authorities of the time to maintain control over a quickly diversifying nation.

If the story of The Komagata Maru Incident were a human body, its brain would be T.S., Hopkinson, Evy, Sophie and Tyrone Savage’s Georg would be the hands and feet that move the plot forward, and the heart and soul of play would be the character known simply as the Woman, played by award-winning vocalist and composer Kiran Ahluwali.

Throughout the play, the Woman is the only passenger from The Komagata Maru represented onstage. Through her one-sided dialogue with her unseen fellow passengers, the audience learns of the worsening conditions on the boat and what eventually happens to them once they return to India.

Through it all, Kiran sings the words to an old Punjabi Fable about a crow who steals a grain of corn from a farmer. When the farmer tries to kill the crow in retaliation, the bird sows chaos and confusion to save his own life and keep his stolen prize.

While Kiran sings the words to the fable in Punjabi, the fable is also spoken in English both by her and the other characters in fragments throughout the production. In Pollock’s original play and in Loughran’s reimagined version, the fable is meant to mirror the events and actions depicted.

Kiran’s haunting vocals combined with the score she composed for the play also lends a note of sadness to the events acted out onstage.

The Komagata Maru Incident plays in repertory at the Studio Theatre until Sept. 22.

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