Sundeep Morrison’s RAG HEAD exposes the ways in which Sikhs are increasingly unsafe in this xenophobic society.

Hate, racism and xenophobia have become a regular part of the lives of Sikh people in the United States. According to a report by CNN, in the month following the 9/11 attacks, the Sikh Coalition documented more than 300 cases of violence and discrimination against Sikhs in the US. On top of facing racial profiling, especially in airports, Sikh people have been the consistent target of physical violence and threats, and in 2012 a gunman walked into a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and killed six people. The election of Donald Trump to the American presidency has done nothing to slow the wave of xenophobia and racism already present in American cities and towns.

White supremacy wrapped up in the ideas of white, Christian ethnostates has been the driving force of not just individual groups of white supremacists, but the goal of colonialists. Hate crimes against Muslim people punctuates the news all too frequently, especially since 9/11, and because of racism, the perpetrators of violence against Muslims also target Sikh people in the U.S. primarily because of the religious traditions which require men to wear their un-cut hair in a turban and let their beards grow, making them visible targets to white racists who seemingly cannot tell the difference between varying groups of Brown and Black people. The crimes themselves continue to harm racial and religious minorities in the United States and our communities have no choice but to support ourselves and each other.

In a performance directed by Amrita Dhaliwal, writer and performer, Sundeep Morrison wrote RAG HEAD which premiers this Friday in Los Angeles. The live show exposes the ways in which Sikhs are increasingly unsafe in this xenophobic society. Morrison’s one-woman performance explores hate, hope and American identity and provides a Sikh awareness workshop to audiences as well. Wear Your Voice interviewed Morrison about what inspired her to write RAG HEAD and how her experiences as a Sikh woman influence her art.

Can you tell me a about your background and how you got started in the creative arts?

Sundeep Morrison: I come from a very artistic and musical family, my siblings and I all play the tabla and harmonium, we were taught Classical Raag Kirtan as children. Growing up there was always some type of music playing in our house, ghazals, punjabi folk, qawwali or kirtan. I was lucky to have two amazing women in life, my mother and maternal grandmother, my “Biji,” they encouraged me to explore my artistic side. They were my main source of support when I decided to attend AMDA NY where I studied film and theatre.

How does your identity as a Punjabi woman influence your work or the projects that you choose?

SM: My writing is heavily influenced by the tribulations and triumphs I have faced as a Punjabi woman. I’m a first generation child of immigrants, thus my goal is to cast an honest light on the pain and beauty within our culture and brutality our community faces.

Can you tell me a bit about RAG HEAD? How you developed the idea, what inspired it and what you’re hoping audiences—especially non-Sikh folks—will take away from it?

SM: I wrote RAG HEAD as a short story first. On the morning of the shooting [in 2012] my parents were attending service at a Gurdwara [Sikh Temple] as they do every Sunday. My mother does Shabad Kirtan (singing Sikh devotional hymns), this particular Sunday they were at an Akhand Path service to give thanks and ask for blessings as my uncle had built a new home. I was at home in LA when I received a frantic call from my brother in Wisconsin telling me that a shooting had taken place at the Gurdwara in Oak creek. There are three Gurdwaras in Wisconsin, my mind raced because my parents didn’t specify which  Gurdwara they were going to that particular Sunday. We tried to call my parents only to realize that they had turned their phones off as they normally did during service. My brother and I in a panic, called everyone we knew to find the whereabouts of our parents. After a grueling hour my mother called to tell me that they had gone to a different Gurdwara and that they were safe. We would later find out that several family friends had been shot and killed. I couldn’t stop thinking about what would have happened if my parents had attended the Oak Creek service that day.  

I found myself in a deep state of depression and anxiety, feeling a mixture of anger and sadness. Having something horrific hit so close to home put me in a constant state of worry over my parents. I picked up my pen and began to write as a release and wrote a short story about all the characters in my head that were based on people I had met in real life. The central character, Baljeet is based on my father. I share all my work with my mother, and at her urging I turned it into a one woman show.

At first, I was apprehensive about sharing my words with the world given the subject matter. As a first generation Canadian Sikh speaking my truth, about my experiences with social justice and identity seemed daunting. I questioned whether I was Sikh enough to engage in a dialogue with the objective to raise awareness, and wondered how my play would be viewed because I am a woman with short hair playing characters, two of whom wear a Dastaar. My love for my Sikhi and Punjabi culture coupled with the support of my parents and community, were greater than my fear of being judged or criticized so I continued developing my show. My hope is to shed light on how Sikhs are perceived in the US and hopefully after seeing the show non-Sikhs will walk away and be advocates for change.

What has your experience been like navigating acting, directing and writing as a Punjabi person in the U.S. or more specifically, Los Angeles?

SM: As a woman of color it’s been challenging at times. You can feel alienated and quite marginalized. I’m grateful to have met many talented and brilliant  WOC, POC who inspire me, especially Ravneet [founder and publisher of Wear Your Voice].

Do you have advice for other Desi women/nonbinary and trans folks trying to break into the creative arts?

SM: I am gender fluid, and Bi and sadly sexuality, gender identity and gender expression are still not openly discussed in our culture. My advice would be, you have to live true to yourself. Also, we need to advocate for each other. Our cis WOC need to support our nonbinary/ trans folks, trans femmes of color as I feel they are the most marginalized of us all.

Are you working on other projects you’d like to tell our readers about?

SM: Yes, I released my first book, titled Lady Bitch Whore. It’s part memoir, part manual about my experiences growing up in as an Indo-Canadian woman. The main message is that you don’t have to be perfect, mean or sexy to succeed as a woman.

Tickets to RAG HEAD are available here and a portion of proceeds will support the Sikh Coalition in their efforts to spread Sikh awareness and support victims of hate crimes.

 

 

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