An ethnic experiment

Wednesday, 13 July 2011 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

I recently went for a stage play, which could well have become a PR disaster but didn’t. It could easily have been interpreted as ‘racist’ and putting it up on the boards, especially in a country that has just finished up a war, which was by far and large termed ‘ethnic,’ was a very brave attempt.

‘He Comes From Jaffna,’ a play set in 1908 and written by E.F.C. Ludowyk in 1934, was staged at the Lionel Wendt for four days last week. Directed by Jith Peiris and brilliantly performed by a colourful cast, which represented almost every race in the country, the play was a roaring success.

The story revolves around the Rajaratnams, a genteel family from olden day Wellawatte, whose lives are turned upside down with misunderstandings and contradictions on the arrival of Durai, the brother-in-law from Jaffna.

The characters, the kind and unassuming head of the home Cleveland Rajaratnam, his European wife, his lawyer son and Sinhalese love interest, brother-in-law Duraiswamipillai from Jaffna and his Colombo living son, the Sinhalese Appu and the Burger shoemaker make for some very amusing scenes that have the audience in stitches. Their accents and manner of speaking English are deliberately exaggerated to create even more hilarity.

On the day that I was in the audience, I was personally witness to people roaring with laughter at what could be termed (in this day and age) ‘derogatory’ statements related to race and even religion. And the best part was that I knew for a fact that the audience rolling with merriment was very multiracial and multicultural.

This particular play, which was once staged for a Western audience (according to Jith Peiris) had become a total faux pas when certain sections of Sri Lankan society living overseas had protested because it had offended their ethnic sensitivities.

Be that as it may, the production of ‘He Comes From Jaffna’ and its staging at the Wendt this first week of July is clear proof that we Sri Lankans at least here in Colombo are not a bunch of racists or bigots. And if dear old Ban Ki-moon was anywhere in that audience, he would have learned a bit about our DNA.

We are culturally advanced enough to live and let live in harmony with one another. Our ability to sit collectively as an audience just two years after an ‘ethnic’ war to enjoy a play which specifically laughs at the quirks and differences of our various ethnicities shows our maturity. And that is something those who are waiting to judge us must consider. I am no political commentator, but the people who are running around shouting ‘Darusman Report’ should see us from this angle.

A newspaper which reviewed ‘He Comes from Jaffna’ asked the audience what they thought of the play and these were some of the responses:

“It was a really good play! Being the eldest in a family originally from Jaffna, it was really fun to watch and the humour was all in good fun and not in the least offensive! The man from Jaffna in fact reminded me of my father…” – Rajaratnam (no connection to the script).

“It was really nice and funny. Brilliantly directed. As I am from India it took a while to connect to some humour, nevertheless I caught on and it was great” – Hansika Singh.

“It was hilarious and entertaining. Everybody in the cast was great. It brought many good memories from the old day Jaffna as well as the same play which was done around the 1950s when I was a little girl – Weerasuriya.

When I asked Jith about his reason for once again reviving this old script, he smiled and said: “We used to laugh and joke about each other in the good old days, and no one took any offence then, so why not now?”

Kudus to you Jith, for a successful experiment which certainly went right!

(The writer, a PR consultant and head of Media360, was previously a mainstream journalist in print and electronic media. He also edits a new media website.)

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