Rag(e) Head? Stage Production Raises Questions of Americanism, Identity

HOLLYWOOD — Part of being American, some might say, is to enjoy camaraderie and share a common identity with other Americans from diverse backgrounds. This common identity –despite differing origins – is then supposed to lead to a sense of unity amongst fellow Americans, wherein there is a community feeling of togetherness. Being an American anywhere in the United States is enough to allow the perks that come with the title…or is it? Are conversation and a friendly demeanor enough to be truly accepted as an American? Actor and writer Sundeep Morrison tackles these questions, with her one woman production, Rag Head, a story centered on a Sikh American family, and their struggles to exist as Americans in Wisconsin. 

            The United States has often been known as a “melting pot,” where people of all creeds and cultures can reside together, and unite, as Americans. However, the process behind unification can be a process that can be met with various levels of difficulty, based on how different a person’s culture, appearance and religion may be from mainstream America. Morrison drives this point by depicting characters, all members of a Sikh American family, interacting with those who are not. Some of these contrasts are delineated overtly, while others are displayed on a subtle level, through the various characters the actor/writer presents to the audience.

            Rag Head spawned from Morrison’s personal experience. A shooter killed six people at a Gurudwara, a place of worship for Sikh Americans, in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, in 2012. Morrison had roots in Oak Creek. Her parents were living there on the day of the shooting. The actor/writer was in Los Angeles and did not hear from her parents for some time after the news of what happened had broke. For a while she feared the worst. Morrison eventually received a call from her mother, who assured her daughter both her and her father were alive. But the body count did include people Morrison and her family personally knew. Morrison wrote a short story to vent her feelings about what happened in Oak Creek. Her mother later nudged Morrison to convert the short story into a theatrical production – which just recently played out at a small but renowned venue on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood.

            Morrison’s portrayal of members of a Sikh American family revolves around a central theme of constantly trying to prove that they are as American as anyone else. One character, a young Sikh American woman, appears at a poetry reading where she makes the point about how someone like her, who looks different, has a difficult time being accepted and has to deal with threats, while living in America, as an American. Morrison also portrays the patriarch of the Sikh family shown, and how the character owns and runs a gas station, while attempting to bridge a gap with an off-screen character who is seemingly hostile to the Sikh American business owner due to his appearance. We see the Sikh American man’s son (a physician) become a victim of discrimination in the workplace, due to his appearance. The common thread in the plights of these characters is they feel they are not American enough, albeit they are portrayed as Americans, with Indian roots participating in the Sikh faith. Laced throughout the narrative are references to people who ignorantly associate Sikhism with Islam - two vastly different religions.

            While the Sikh American family Morrison portrays is attempting to live their lives as Americans, the non-Sikh characters remind the audience Sikhs are different. Perhaps they are not viewed as true Americans. There is a constant theme Morrison provides for the audience – where she exhibits the Sikh characters as “the Others” – based on how the non-Sikh characters interact within their own tribe. Is it truly possible to integrate into the fabric of America, as Americans, if the perception of being non-American is constantly in play? This is the question that Morrison consistently poses to the audience as the story unfolds. Once there is a perception of being different, or “the other,” it can be extremely difficult to find any opportunity to fit in and gain acceptance from society. This concept reigns true for any group considered a minority, and is fiercely projected throughout the course of the show.

            As the show reaches its conclusion, we see the first act, where the Sikh American patriarch is having a conversation with a fellow American at his gas station, leads to an eventual tragedy, which claims the lives of his family. Morrison plays the character with having an enormous sense of grief, and remorse as the off-screen character that the Sikh American man was having a conversation with, opened fire at a Gurudwara, a Sikh place of worship, where the Sikh man’s family was gunned down.

            The Sikh American man asks himself, if he had not invited the hostile man to learn about his faith, then maybe his family would have still been alive. The cost of having the conversation to help educate another person with misperceptions set up the opportunity for a tragic event. The alternative would be to not have the conversation, wherein the family would still be alive. There is no way of knowing, however, whether drastic action would still befall this Sikh American family. Morrison conveys to the audience the weight of having an educational conversation can be heavy, and lead to the worst possible outcome, like the one expressed in the final act of the show.

            Unification as Americans can be a task of varying proportions of challenge and difficulty. Based on the production exhibited by Morrison, the audience experiences how a Sikh family trying to live an American life is often perceived as not being “American” enough. This perception by other Americans around them leads to the idea that this Sikh American family is different, and part of “the other.” Eventually these thoughts lead to a great tragedy indirectly linked to an opportunity for dialogue and teaching. Morrison, at the end of the show, spends time with the audience, engaging in a dialogue with them. They discuss what being Sikh means - and why having such a conversation is truly important.

            At the most basic level, acknowledging differences and coming together to learn from one another without retribution is key in breaking down the barriers Americans create for themselves with each other. Shows like Rag Head are a beginning point to start having these conversations sooner, rather than later. Morrison weaves a story where perceptions drive an individual to commit a heinous act, perpetrated on fear and ignorance. Honest conversation and education are one way to slowly dissipate these emotions and hopefully lead to a United States of America where all Americans can be united and to pursue their own version of the “American Dream.”

            The show’s run might be over – final curtain was Oct. 14. But you can still continue the discussion. Proceeds from Rag Head’s stage run benefit the Sikh Coalition, which was founded after 9/11 to promote education, discourse, peace and togetherness. Visit www.sikhcoaltion.org to find out how you can help prevent future Oak Creek incidents.