In 2017, Punjabi Sikh writer, actress, director and activist Sundeep Morrison was struggling to find Sikh actors for her developing play “Rag Head.”
When a friend told Morrison to just play every character, she replied, “Well, that sounds narcissistic.”
Since its 2018 debut, however, the one-woman show has been received as anything but.
“Rag Head” was shown to a full theater and an excited crowd at Pomona College April 19, and featured an opening poetry performance by student poet Zayn Singh SC ’20, as well as a post-play Q&A with Morrison. The event was hosted by Cal Poly Pomona and Claremont’s Sikh Student Associations.
Based on the 2012 gurdwara (Sikh temple) shooting in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, “Rag Head” tackles Sikh identity and trauma in relation to broader themes of hate, hope and American identity. Sikhism originated in the Punjab region, which includes areas of modern-day India and Pakistan, and is a religion distinct from Hinduism or Islam.
Morrison played a community of characters, including four members of a Sikh family, a Muslim lawyer and two additional characters, Gwen and Dale. These two characters represented the duality between white allyship and white bigotry, respectively: Gwen advocated for the promotion of Dev, the Sikh family son, while Dale spouted slurs when he was angered by his daughter’s Sikh boyfriend.
The play was comprised of several vignettes, each with a singular character played by Morrison. The scenes were preceded by audio clips of news segments about the Sikh community, preparing the audience for upcoming topics.
With no music and minimal stage design, each scene had an emotional impact and clear intent. They reflected Morrison’s feelings regarding being Sikh in majority-white spaces, whether in the workplace, in airport security or even just in one’s hometown.
A native of Calgary, a city in the Canadian province of Alberta, Morrison said she remembers a lack of representation and tolerance, as well as a dissonance created between her love of her family’s identity and people’s prejudices.
“My school … was a very white space,” Morrison said. “My brother was the only student that had a joora, a turban, and the first time I heard the pejorative ‘rag head’ was when my father was driving me to school. I knew what a rag was. I knew what a head was. But what my dad wore every morning was a crown of cloth.”
Morrison brought awareness to the term “anticipatory stress” — stress concerning the future. She said she hoped “Rag Head” could create spaces to alleviate that stress in Sikh communities.
“As a person of color, especially as a visible minority wearing an article of faith, anticipatory stress levels in our current socio-political climate are very high,” Morrison explained. “But to see all these beautiful brown faces — this is where it starts. You create a safe space and you advocate for each other and you become allies in your own community.”
Hershey Suri PO ’21, an organizer for the event and member of the Claremont SSA, said she valued the show as a means of representation.
“This show holds my life,” Suri said. “Seeing a performance done by someone who relates to me so much meant the world to me.”
The show also resonated with non-Sikh students.
“I identify as South Asian and Muslim and … I feel as if the Muslim and Sikh post-9/11 experiences share many similarities,” Sofia Ahmed SC ’21 said. “The feelings [the] play portrayed of being fearful to express your religious identity because of [public perception] is something I continue to struggle with.”
Though attendee Selena Lopez PO ’22 said she does not identify with Morrison as a member of the Latinx community, she said she related to the bigoted language parroted by a character named Dale in the production.
“I definitely felt like I was hearing words I would hear back home,” Lopez said. “Being from the South, I am quite used to having to put up with racist comments and having to be stronger than them [and] having to be brave in front of them.”
Several students were cognizant of the large percentage of attendees who were people of color and hoped to attract a wider audience.
“As I looked around the show, I realized that the audience comprised mainly of people of color,” Ahmed said. “Although it was so cathartic [to be represented], I wish white students were able to hear this story … as I think white students would especially benefit from hearing stories that center on racial and religious minorities.”
Lopez agreed with the sentiment.
“I really wish more people had attended, specifically people from other backgrounds,” she said. “To be able to learn about people’s experiences [of discrimination] is important, even more so in a place of privilege.”
Morrison addressed the issue, saying her aim is to “take the show into white-saturated spaces where brown faces aren’t a norm, let alone a majority.
“I’m beyond grateful that you all [Sikh students] are here, but you know the struggle,” she said.
Morrison closed the Q&A by asking white audience members for active allyship and gave tips on how to be a better ally to minority communities.
“I would like to implore our white audience members — especially in L.A., we have a huge culture of activism and we use the word ‘ally’ and ‘activist’ — I would implore you to shift the words ‘activist’ and ‘ally’ from nouns to verbs, because we need your help,” Morrison said. “I can arrive to the occasion and explain and be open, but it’s exhausting; I think [minorities] are all exhausted. Not to say we won’t … spread our advocacy, but we need our white allies.”
“So when you’re with your friends and someone makes an off-color joke, against any community, speak up. You may totally ‘kill the vibe,’ but that’s real advocacy — when it causes you discomfort.”