Q&A: The Mourning After

When Kiwi-born Shekar travels to his father’s village in Sri Lanka he discovers a tsunami has swept away the village and all that remains are the stories of those left behind. We talk with playwright and director Ahi Karunaharan about his play The Mourning After, which the Foundation supported with an Arts Project grant.
A man sitting on a stage floor making patterns in sand

Ahi Karunaharan: "This is a work about memory, remembrance and nostalgia, and the fragmented, disjointed structure is reflective of it."

Can you describe the play?

The Mourning After is a solo theatre show. It tells a tale of what happens when our protagonist leaves New Zealand to visit his ancestral homeland of Sri Lanka in order to return his father’s ashes.

We join Shekar, performed by recent Toi Whakaari graduate Jehangir Homavazir, as he returns to the remains of his father’s village – nearly all of which was lost in the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami.

The relatives and his eccentric family help navigate fragments of his memories, which are told through stories, anecdotes, songs, tea, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Kali ma!), impersonations, and live music.

The special atmosphere within the theatre is a feature of the production, can you talk about that?

The play features an evocative and hypnotic live music score performed by a quartet of musicians including Deeksha Vijayakumar, Tristan Carter, Isaac Smith and Senuka Sudusinghe. 

The live music is atmospheric and complementary to the story throughout the entire performance and features popular tamil and sinhala songs from Sri Lanka as well as an aria from Bizet’s Pearl Fishers.

The experience of The Mourning After begins before you even hit your seat. You are welcomed with tea and asked to remove your shoes before entering the theatre. As you enter, you are greeted with music from the band. All this creates a welcoming and comfortable atmosphere which perfectly sets the viewer up for what is about to unfold.

The band: Senuka Sudusinghe, Isaac Smith, Tristan Carter & Deeksha Vijayakumar

The band: Senuka Sudusinghe, Isaac Smith, Tristan Carter & Deeksha Vijayakumar

Does the Sri Lankan community have a strong presence in theatre in NZ? Is there a “NZ Sri Lankan theatre scene” as such?

The Sri Lankan community has been presenting arts within community halls and cultural events for over 30 years.

The earliest community cultural events were in 1983 when the majority of Sri Lankan community arrived in New Zealand.

The Tamil and Sinhala communities of Sri Lanka would stage yearly plays, usually classics from the motherland. In the commercial sense, or in the arts sector sense there isn't much of a Sri Lankan theatre scene. The music scene however is thriving.

TEA was the first full length Sri Lankan play to be performed in a main-stage venue in Aotearoa and premiered at Auckland Arts Festival 2018l. The Mourning After will now be the second Sri Lankan play to be staged outside of the community space in Aotearoa.

The Sri Lankan community has supported other South Asian theatre works, but as we keep pushing for more diversity within our spaces, the possibility of Sri Lankan community having a strong theatrical voice grows.

Does the Mourning After include elements of traditional or contemporary Sri Lankan theatre? 

The Mourning After features traditional music and instrumental colliding with urban and contemporary sounds.

We have traditional instruments such as Veena, the Sri Lankan drum Udukki playing alongside the double bass, guitar and violin. 

The movement sequences are inspired by Therukoothu and Kandyan dance. Rooted in folk and traditional dance.

A man lying on a stage covered in sand

The play's protagonist Shekar was performed by Toi Whakaari graduate Jehangir Homavazir

Popular contemporary music such as Baila, pop songs juxtaposed floor patterned kolam work that is weaved through the performance to create a hybrid theatrical language that combines both Eastern and Western theatrical traditions.

The form and the structure of the work defies the traditional narrative structure. This is a work about memory, remembrance and nostalgia, and the fragmented, disjointed structure is reflective of it. This form of storytelling and presentation borrows heavily from Naatukoothu and Kathakalakshepa traditions. 

Why do you think it’s good for New Zealand audiences to see theatre set in/about Sri Lanka?

The diversity of voices within minorities is crucial. It challenges stereotypes to present many diverse viewpoints.

New Zealanders who see theatre set in or about Sri Lankans will get an insight and window into a culture, a community, people, history, and stories that is often grouped or reduced down to a South Asian cultural monolith.

Ultimately, all good art should use its specificity to create a universal experience that speaks to the now. We have various cultural touchstones to Sri Lanka - Tea, Cricket, Food, Indian Jones and Temple of Doom, but what theatre does goes beyond this? 

Director Ahi Karunaharan and lead actor Jehangir Homavazir

Director Ahi Karunaharan (left) and lead actor Jehangir Homavazir (right)

How did audiences respond to the play?

This work attracted a whole new generation of young diaspora audiences. Their voices and their responses were reflective of our protagonist’s journey from longing for a homeland that they have never seen, to a lament to a home that no longer exists or to a reclamation of all that had survived.

The Mourning After was perfomed at Q Theatre in Auckland and Wellington's Circa Theatre earlier this year. The play was designed by conceptual artist Sylvie McGregor and features light by designer Helen Todd.

Photos:: Abhi Chinniah @ Rami Studios 

The Foundation supported the production of The Mourning After through our Arts Project Fund.