by Lynn on September 15, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Studio Theatre, Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont.

Written by Sharon Pollock
Directed by Keira Loughran
Set by Joanna Yu
Costumes by Jackie Chau
Lighting by Ital Erdal
Composed by Kiran Ahluwalia
Sound design by Suba Sankaran
Cast: Kian Ahluwalia
Jasmine Chen
Omar Alex Khan
Tyrone Savage
Quelemia Sparrow
Diana Tso

A serious subject that needs a better play and definitely better production.

The Story. The Komagata Maru Incident by Sharon Pollock about a terrible point in Canada’s past that seemed to set a racist immigration precedent. It was first produced in Vancouver in 1976. The play takes place in Vancouver in 1914 in a brothel. A Japanese freighter named the Komagata Maru carrying 340 Sikhs, 24 Muslims, and 12 Hindus, all British citizens, arrived in Vancouver harbour but were not allowed to get off the ship.

Two laws were cited: 1) they had to have made the journey in a direct route with no stops, which they didn’t do. 2) they had to pay a head tax, which they couldn’t afford.

The Sikh community in Vancouver offered to pay it but the government refused it. The ship and almost all aboard it were stranded in the harbor for 2 months with diminishing food and water while people wrangled about what to do. The Immigration Officer negotiating the details between the people on the freighter and the mainland was William Hopkinson who fluctuated between being racist towards immigrants and having compassion for them because they were running out of food and water. Hopkinson has his own secrets.

The underlying reasons were racist. They didn’t want any more South Asians to come to Canada. Eventually the freighter was sent back but this incident certainly established a precedent. I think of the SS. St. Louis with 900 or so Jews from Nazi Germany being refused entry to various ports including Canada, whose policy of how many to admit was “one is too many”, and other incidents of other nationalities over the last century.

This is not a docudrama. Playwright Sharon Pollock says that it’s her impression of the events but she is not being held to just the facts. All the people on the freighter are represented by a woman of South Asian decent. Pollock was more comfortable writing a woman to represent those on the ship rather than a Sikh man. Fair enough.

The Production. Pollock has presented it as a kind of circus act with a Master of Ceremonies who narrates aspects of what is happening, which is mystifying, and the production doesn’t help either.

It’s directed by Keira Loughran and I just don’t think she’s a very good director. She gets mired in trying to be clever and she fails. I thought her work last year directing The Aeneid was poor, again with too much distracting stuff.

This year her production of The Komagata Maru Incident is so busy with distracting staging stuff it is aggravating to watch. There is a large central set piece that represents the Komagata Maru. Standing at the top of the ship structure is The Woman representing all the Sikhs. She is played by the incomparable Kiran Ahluwalia who has written all the Punjabi lyrics for the songs she sings. She is a clear, compelling actress when conveying the urgency of the situation. I wished that there was a translation so I could know what she’s saying. She plays a woman with a small child (unseen) and comments on the goings on. The Woman is perhaps the only one with perception, integrity, and savvy enough to know they are being used as pawns and duped.

So to illustrate my comment about Kiera Loughran’s direction: we have The Woman at the top of the large ship, then down below on stage level are other characters with their own dialogue between them, then there are projections on the bow of the ship representing birds etc. that might expand on the dialogue and the whole thing conspires to scatter our attention. Who do we pay attention to? What is the point of the scene? That I have to ask these questions is maddening and frustrating.

There is a character called T.S who is our Master of Ceremonies who puts on a British soldier’s uniform to comment on the goings on and the law. T.S. is played by a woman named Quelemia Sparrow without a trace of irony, sarcasm or edge. She is so busy playacting at narrating a terrible story and doing cheesy choreography that the character seems just smarmy rather than edgy. Again, the director doesn’t have a grip on how to guide the actress in making the character more substantial than superficial.

I think of the MC in Cabaret whose job was to narrate and yet convey the horrors of what was going on outside that Cabaret in Germany at the time and he did it with sarcasm and irony. But then again the rendering of the MC in Cabaret was brilliant and in The Komagata Maru Incident is just embarrassing.

Playing William Hopkinson is Omar Alex Khan who spends too much time expelling large sighs to convey frustration and not much variation in a rather wooden performance.

A bright note in this dreary production is Tyrone Savage as Georg, a mysterious German businessman. Savage gave Georg class and sophistication.

Comment. Sharon Pollock is a leading Canadian playwright who has created interesting plays in the past. The Komagata Maru Incident is not one of them. It is plodding, ponderous in the story telling in that much of it tells and doesn’t show and is often confusing.

The Komagata Maru Incident is a play that is rarely done. There is a reason for that. It’s not a good play. It’s an important issue, but not a good play. And the static production doesn’t help. Save your money and Google the Komagata Maru Incident and learn about it that way.

Plays at the Stratford Festival until Sept. 24, 2017.

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