A Sikh-American’s solo show, born out of racial violence, probes the precarity inherent in the dual identities and experiences of immigrants
Writer and performer Sundeep Morrison’s solo show Rag Head: An American Story was a visceral response to a mass shooting incident that occurred on August 5, 2012 at a gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin
Rag-head is a pejorative, and I chose that because it was the first slur I heard someone call my dad,” writer and performer Sundeep Morrison tells us about the title of their solo off-Broadway show, which will premiere this month. “As a kid I knew what a rag was and what a head was, but what he wore was almost like a cloth crown as it had such a sacred meaning. I remember that moment of trying to ask my dad why someone would say that and seeing the pain on his face.”
Rag Head: An American Story was a visceral response to a mass shooting incident that occurred on August 5, 2012 at a gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, where a white supremacist murdered six people and wounded four others. “I was in Los Angeles when the shooting was unfolding,” recalls Morrison. “Both my parents have lived there for about 20 years now. It devastated me, our community and our family, and it was the first time that I was questioning how safe my parents were [in this country]. My mom does kirtan on Sundays and I wondered, ‘what if she had been on that stage that day?’.”
Morrison, a graduate of The American Musical and Dramatic Academy, New York, started writing the piece initially as a short story. Storytelling was a seminal part of their family history, they say, their ‘Biji’ or maternal grandmother sparking an early love of being able to connect with others through narratives. Morrison’s debut novel, Lady Bitch Whore, written after the birth of their daughter, was a way of reflecting on their own journey of navigating dual cultures, finding autonomy and sharing the life lessons learnt from their grandmother.
Rag Head, however, was written to purge and process their immediate feelings of fear, anger and anxiety in the aftermath of the shooting. “I was writing to get it out of my heart,” says the fan of Maya Angelou’s poetry. “It was a reflection too of the climate for immigrants and for us—children of immigrants—in post 9/11 America.” Morrison is the child of Punjabi Sikh parents and grew up in Calgary, Alberta Canada. As they began sharing the piece, it started to take on the life of a narrative that needed to be put out into the world. In it, characters like those of an American Sikh gas station owner, a Sikh doctor, a young Sikh poet and a Muslim lawyer who wears a hijab, reveal moments of racial hatred and violence as they navigate their fraught American lives and identities. Included in this piece are also characters like those of a bigoted army veteran and the executive director of a medical clinic incapable of effecting real change in discriminatory institutional hiring policies.
Initially, considering casting other actors in the roles, upon the suggestion of a member in their writing group, Morrison decided to present the piece as a solo show, portraying all seven roles. “Each of the characters is so personal,” Morrison explains. “Every person in the story is someone I draw from my life. I write what I know and what I know is pain, marginalisation, racialisation, and the feeling of being ‘othered’. The main characters are based on my mom, dad, aunts, uncles, cousins—people I grew up with. It turned out to be a very healing practice and also a way to tell a story in the most personal sense.”
The show has elicited a variety of responses, says its creator. Performances since 2017 and social media exposure has brought about messages from white supremacists, who, because of the play’s title, have believed it to be a piece sympathising with their ideology. “When they learn that it is completely antithetical to what they believe and is an advocacy piece, there are strong feelings there,” shares Morrison. While they admit that as a queer non-binary Punjabi Sikh performer, they have received support from the South Asian community, “it is still difficult because once people find out my identity, they are going to have their critiques.”