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Film/Stage

I Saw Komagata Maru At Stratford,
And ...

A Review by MARKETA HOLTEBRINCK

 

 

 

 

 

I went to see The Komagata Maru Incident at the Studio Theatre in Stratford, Ontario, on the last day of August 2017 – on the dot 28 years after embarking on my own journey from a socialist Central Europe country to the post-dictatorial / post- colonial Portugal.

Little did I know of the Komagata Maru at the time I was told by friends – themselves immigrants – time and again that I had to apply for political asylum in the first Western country I entered after crossing the Iron Curtain. But my mind was set on going to Lisbon, a port of departure for the New World for countless ships in the recent and not so recent history.

I decided to take my chances. After Germany, I crossed France and Spain. When I finally applied for refugee status in Lisbon, the Portuguese immigration officers did not recourse to the ‘first-country regulation’, designed primarily to prevent the unmonitored, under-the- hand settlement of Eastern Europeans in wealthy Western Europe. They had been busy then with the influx of civil war refugees from Portugal’s former African colonies.

The single young white female immigrant I was, I received preferential treatment. I did not have to wait in line for days, was offered a coffee at the interview, given immediate entry, and received my papers within a week or so. The officials were traditionally sexist and parochial, but the quick wrap-up was welcoming, in a way.

The ‘continuous-journey regulation’ was also not a law of the country, and as such it was up to the processing immigration officer to unilaterally choose whether to apply it or not.

In Canada, when it was passed as an amendment to the Canadian Immigration Act in 1908, its unstated but express aim was to bring non-white immigrant numbers down ... surely British nationals of European descent were not denied entry to Canada if they were coming from Hong Kong, and not London.

With only one shipping company offering direct journey from British India to Canada, Canadian government agencies had an easy job to bully it into shutting the line down.

The Komagata Maru, at the time a Japanese-owned and -captained ship, chartered by a wealthy businessman Gurdit Singh in Hong Kong, arrives at Vancouver harbor in late May 1914 to challenge the regulation. All passengers aboard – 340 out of the total 376 were Sikhs – carry British Indian passports, the majority of them veterans of the British colonial army.

They are not allowed to disembark. For the following two months the authorities protract to starve the ship in any way possible and ultimately ‘motivate’ it to leave 'on its own accord'. The press diligently raises anxieties and rage in the best tabloid manner and the cable lines between Ottawa, Vancouver, Delhi and London run hot.

That’s where Sharon Pollock’s play, The Komagata Maru Incident, written and first-time staged forty years ago, takes over. In the playwright’s introduction she makes clear that she had not written a documentary play. Her use of documentary material is, however, quite brilliant.

She locates her play on the historical threshold – war mongering in Europe leads to the first declaration of war on July 28, 1914 – and leaves the ship in the distance, situating the dramatic action solely in a red-light establishment. These absences – of British concern with the war and the role of the Sikhs in it, of the ship itself and of the ‘respectable public' – make the relentlessly progressing spoken word all the more present.

Without scripting a single turbaned figure on stage, the presence of the Sikhs in between times, worlds, and social and national (un)certainties is expressed in just a couple of lines. It is up to the Canadian establishment to blurt out the ugly truth in a little cowardly joke.

- "Many are veterans of the British Army, sir; they’re sure to plead consideration for military service."

- "You can put it this way – we don’t mind them dying for us, we just don’t want them living with us. (laughing) Get the point?"

But the more those trapped on the ship are debased and laughed at in their absence, the larger they rise:

"... the closer we got ... The more quiet we were ... as we looked up we saw them ... lining the rails were great turbanned figures...We stared up at them ... they stared down at us ..."


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The stage in Studio Theatre is small, surrounded on three sides by ascending rows of seats, typical of Stratford's stages. The simplified shape of a ship’s bow closes the stage on the fourth side. The typical Stratford audience, mostly white and mostly around retirement age today, is fills the house. Looking at the ship from their comfortable seats, they merge in the darkness with the onlookers on the shore some hundred years ago.

The cast has only six actors, three women, three men. The power balance is seemingly clearly divided: the master of ceremony, scripted in the stage directions with the initials T.S., Inspector Hopkinson from the Department of Immigration, and a young German immigrant, Georg, on one side; Evy and Sophie, prostitutes involved with Hopkinson and Georg, on the other.

The sixth character is known to the audience only as A Woman. She is the only one visible and speaking directly from the ship, constituting in dramatic terms T.S.’s counterpart. Their space is mutually exclusive – although T.S. has direct and indirect influence on what is going on board, he cannot enter the ship’s space and silence the Woman.

Played, and above all sung, by Kiran Ahluwalia, this is the most memorable innovation that the director, Keira Loughran, brought to this production. Kiran’s voice transcends the confines of the theatrical ship, contests the stage dialogue and envelopes the audience. Kiran’s singing of Punjabi ragas on Canada’s most iconic festival stage still echoes when all the action and final applause are long finished.

Loughran’s cast choices are somewhat post-national and in synch with the challenges of the celebrations of 150 years of Canada. In her introduction in the production brochure she speaks of her Chinese heritage and of her wondering how Canada’s indigenous people would perceive the incident “in light of their own dealings with the colonizers”.

That explains the cast choice of Quelemia Sparrow, brilliantly versatile actress of Musqueam heritage who truly lives up to the challenge of the role as T.S. She is almost everything that T.S. is meant to be, and more – a jester, a cocky dancer, a master, a newspaper boy, a circus impresario, a shaman. Her beautifully resonant voice carries well on the stage, but — when her voice crosses Kiran’s singing, rather than a contest of two irreconcilable worlds, the two female voices participate in a range where each of them has its place. As if the two characters – a Sikh woman singing from the depth of the past into the present and a distinctly native master of ceremony – bemoaned the oversights of history in the making.

The Mephistophelian dimension of the T.S. role as a mischievously evil mastermind, an incarnation of a human corruption and a god-as-man’s-device deception, thus recedes in the background – aided by the director’s decision to drop Sharon Pollock’s brilliant puppeteering device which gave T.S. the power to freeze and unfreeze the four characters on stage (and the audience, in extension).

Thus Hopkinson (played by Omar Alex Khan), who walks and acts in the dark shadow of T.S., comes out in this production as a more human – and fathomable – character. He bribes, tricks, threatens and orders others, yet he also yearns for affection and has his inner struggles.

The playwright’s direction for staging the play in one relentlessly continuous stream puts Hopkinson in the centre of attention – there is always a Singh waiting at the door or in the garden, Herman Singh, Bella Singh ... But they slowly disappear and someone who is not Bella Singh is waiting in the dark of the garden. The stage for Mewa Singh is set and the ceaseless stream of words brings Hopkinson’s fate ever closer.

In a play written by a white Canadian wrestling with white violence inflicted on ‘visible minority’ immigrants by equally white characters, Hopkinson’s mixed heritage exposes and questions – more than just rationalizes -- his actions. It splits the ‘we’ on the stage, and that of the audience.

If the interpretation of the two prostitutes in Loughran’s direction as Chinese – perhaps an echo of today’s Vancouver? – strengthens this aspect of the Hopkinson character remains for the audience to decide. On the stage it curiously leads to a wondrous community of white men and a Chinese girl, celebrating the victory of white bureaucracy:

"Come look! ... The Komagata Maru’s moving – and the Rainbow’s going right along side ... We won! We won! Didn’t we, Georg? Didn’t we, Mr. Hopkinson? ... It’s over and we won!"

As I read the play only a day ahead of seeing it on stage, Sharon Pollock’s words stood clearly behind the action. They carry a great potential to unlock the public memory in each of us. I strongly recommend you read Pollock’s play – it only takes an hour and half – before going to see it.

It plays in Stratford for only two and half more weeks.

 

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You can purchase tickets online for ‘The Komagata Maru Incident’ by CLICKING here. 

 September 7, 2017 

Conversation about this article

1: Sehaj Kaur (New York, USA), September 07, 2017, 1:23 PM.

A brilliantly written review of a brilliant play. Thanks.

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