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Stratford's 'The Komagata Maru Incident' explores painful chapter of Canada's past

Last Updated Aug 18, 2017 at 4:40 pm EST

Actress Kiran Ahluwalia sits for a portrait at the Avon Theatre during a rehearsal for "The Komagata Maru Incident", in Stratford, Ont., on Thursday, June 15, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Hannah Yoon

STRATFORD, Ont. – The Stratford Festival is revisiting a painful chapter in Canada’s history with “The Komagata Maru Incident,” but the show’s stars say it is vital to continue addressing the issues at the core of the century-old story.

“I’m super excited that Stratford decided to tell this story because it is such an important story, and a lot of minority histories in Canada are forgotten — not just in Canada but the world over,” said Juno Award-winning artist Kiran Ahluwalia, who is making her debut at the festival.

“It’s a wonderful recognition that this is part of Canadian history.”

Written by Sharon Pollock, the play is based on the 1914 incident involving 376 passengers, nearly all Sikhs, travelling aboard the Japanese steamship Komagata Maru.

The Indian immigrants arrived off the coast of B.C., only to be denied entry into Vancouver, which at the time was the country’s most diverse city. Immigration regulations back then required migrants to arrive in Canada directly from their country of origin — a journey that was virtually impossible in 1914.

With the exception of 20 passengers who had previously lived in Canada, officials refused to allow the Indian immigrants in, even though they were British subjects just like every other Canadian at the time. The vessel returned to India, where 19 of the passengers were killed in a skirmish with British authorities and dozens of others were imprisoned or forced into hiding.

The Canadian and B.C. governments have both issued formal apologies for the incident.

The Indian-born, Canadian-raised Ahluwalia was a 19-year-old university student when she first learned of the Komagata Maru. The vocalist and composer revisited the story a few years ago when she composed a song for Alik Khazni’s “Continuous Journey,” an award-winning documentary about the incident.

In the play, she portrays The Woman, serving as the voice for the people aboard the steamship.

While Ahluwalia has dialogue in the play, director Keira Loughran suggested they incorporate a Punjabi fable that mirrors the storyline.

“The fable is about a crow who steals a grain of corn, and then his life is in danger because the person he steals it from is going to kill him,” she explained.

“He creates havoc and basically creates total destruction just to get his kernel of corn to save his own life — but not anybody else’s. So, this fable mirrors what’s happening in the fable of the Komagata Maru incident.”

Ahluwalia was asked by the director to compose lyrics in Punjabi and the melody based on the fable.

“Parts of this song are interspersed throughout the play,” she said. “Parts of it are telling the story in song format for the world, the audience, the universe, and they’re in Punjabi folk style, and then parts of them are in very spiritual style,” she said. “It’s one song, but it has different arcs and different emotions in it as it runs through the play.”

Indigenous actress and playwright Quelemia Sparrow makes her Stratford debut as T.S., playing the role of a master of ceremonies.

“I just think it’s so important to have that presence in the piece, with the 150-year birthday for Canada, that we’re acknowledging the First Peoples of this land, and that we’ve been on this land for thousands and thousands of years,” said Sparrow, who is from Vancouver and a member of the Musqueam Nation. “I was saying to Keira… that on some level my presence in the piece is like I’m welcoming her people to the land in the way they should have been welcome.

“I think it’s also great to acknowledge that the history that we learn is selective — that it’s been given to us,” she added.

“There are a lot of stories that have been pushed aside that we haven’t been taught about, and that we don’t talk about and so it’s really important. It’s a huge responsibility to share those stories.”

“The Komagata Maru Incident” is onstage at Stratford’s Studio Theatre until Sept. 24

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