By James Karas
The Komagata Maru Incident is a punch in the face to Canada’s white supremacist past. It is a well-timed and fully deserved punch and we should all bow our heads in shame that such a racist incident was allowed to happen. Fortunately, things have changed in the past century.
In 1914 a Japanese ship carrying 376 Punjabis of whom 346 were Sikhs arrived in Vancouver Harbour. The passengers were British subjects and some of them had in fact fought in the British army and all were legally entitled to come to Canada. They were kept in the harbor for weeks and finally the ship was chased way by a warship.
Sharon Pollock has written a dramatic version of the incident that contains much factual information about the incident without being a documentary. It is a piece of theatre relying mostly on the imagination of Pollock.
Members of the company in The Komagata Maru Incident.
Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann
The play and the production deliver the punch of the ugly incident but there are issues with the play and Keira Loughran’s direction. The play is about Sikhs but there is not a single turban to be seen. There is a Sikh mother who is simply called Woman, (Kiran Ahluwlia) who speaks from the prow of the ship and sings some hauntingly beautiful and plaintive songs but never interacts with any of the other characters of the play. Some people may consider a play about Sikhs with only a token Sikh character a weakness and I would agree with them.
Much of the play takes place in a brothel run by Evy (Diana Tso) who has William Hopkinson (Omar Alex Khan), the immigration officer and chief villain of the play, as a regular client. Georg (Tyrone Savage) is a German friend, a tool of Hopkinson as well as a customer of the brothel, availing himself of the services of Sophie (Jasmine Chen).
There is a character called T.S., a man played by Quelemia Sparrow, who appears wearing a native costume which he, the character, takes off and puts on a top hat and a red coat and becomes a master of ceremonies of what could be a circus. We see him frequently and he comments on the action, expresses public opinion and addresses parliament.
Quelemia Sparrow as T.S. and Omar Alex Khan as William Hopkinson in The Komagata Maru Incident. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Sparrow is a marvelous actor who shows flair, energy and superb acting in the role. For some reason Loughran thinks that T.S. should never stand still. Sparrow dances almost all the time while speaking and the practice becomes unnecessary and annoying. A superb performance marred. The meaning in change from indigenous costume to circus master and back to indigenous at the end escaped me.
Loughran sees nothing wrong with two things happening at the same time on the stage. While Ahluwalia is singing, other characters carry on as if nothing is happening behind them. We want to hear both the song and the dialogue.
The Studio is a small theatre with the audience sitting on three sides of the auditorium. Loughran lets the actors stand right in front of the middle section of seats address them as if the other two sides don’t exist. They could just as easily stand near the back and be seen and heard by all sides of the audience.
Georg is a German who wants to be of service to Hopkinson and looks forward to business opportunities when World War I is declared. So much for giving Germans a bad a review but Savage could use a decent German accent. Khan is just as bad in that department. Interestingly, he is from a Yorkshire father who served in Pakistan and whose mother was brown and he ended up in Canada.
Tso as Evy and Chen as Sophia are spunky, fearless, no-nonsense prostitutes and we are on their side.
Presenting the shameful Komagata Maru incident on stage does Stratford great credit and it is unfortunate that there are a few shortcomings in the play and in the production. But the necessary punch is delivered.
__________________The Komagata Maru Incident by Sharon Pollock continues in repertory until September 24, 2017 at the Studio Theatre. 34 George Street, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca