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'Rag Head': Canadian performer Sundeep Morrison turns racist slur hurled at Sikh father into a show-stopper

The title of Calgary-born, LA-based Sundeep Morrison’s solo show is an attempt to reclaim a pejorative term and turn it into advocacy.

Rag Head: An American Story was inspired by the 2012 fatal shooting spree by a white supremacist at a Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, near where the Punjabi Sikh performer’s parents were living at the time.

Sundeep, who uses they/them pronouns, says living in a post-9/11 era was a hard reality to adjust to, so receiving a phone call from their frantic parents at the time was an even further shattering experience.

My heart just dropped into my guts because there’s only one of three places to worship in Wisconsin and we were just in shock as to how close it hit to home. It really was one of the first times I questioned my parents' safety. Especially in a place of worship, which is a place of sanctuary. If it can happen there, it can happen everywhere.Sundeep Morrison, star of "Rag Head': An American Story"

Sundeep Morrison
Sundeep Morrison

The overwhelming emotions that flooded Morrison took some time to process. First, they used it as a writing exercise to purge the feelings out of their system. In a writing group, Morrison began exploring in the form of a short story, sharing it with peers who encouraged them to do more with it. So they turned into a play.

While Morrison had intended to have other actors play the seven characters, they had a hard time finding people to fill the roles, so a peer suggested they formulate it as a solo show. This especially made sense to Morrison, who based some of the characters on relatives or people they had met.

Sundeep playing all seven characters in the show
Sundeep playing all seven characters in the show

“When I shared it more, I realized, once people read it, it makes them feel something and think differently and it turned into an advocacy piece and that made me want to share it with more people,” they say.

Morrison says they intentionally used the derogatory term in the title of the play, because as a child, it was one of the first slanders they had heard used against their dad.

I knew what a rag was, I knew what a head was, but what he wore was his cloth crown. That moment stuck with me.Sundeep Morrison, star of "Rag Head': An American Story"

Sundeep Morrison
Sundeep Morrison

Morrison admits that they’re received racist messages online from people who see the title and think the play is a piece that sympathises with their ideology.

“When they take a deeper dive and realize the piece is completely antithetical and it’s an advocacy piece, they have strong emotions about it,” Morrison says. “It’s been a journey in terms of the response. But for the most part, when people see the show, they’re moved and that’s always been the goal.”

Morrison says they wrote the piece with white audiences in mind, as a way to teach them about the immigrant experience, especially in a post-9/11 world. They hope it helps audiences walk away feeling something profound, so that if they find themselves in circles where racism is on display, whether on a micro or macro level, they can speak up and use their voice.

Sundeep Morrison
Sundeep Morrison

“For me, being a queer, non binary, South Asian Punjabi creative, I think to get any story out into the world, let alone on a stage in front of people, is really fortunate,” they say.

Rag Head: An American Story will run at the United Solo Festival, performing in New York City on Oct 28th