South Asian women are rarely seen on our stages. When they are, it wouldn’t be much of a risk to put a bet on them being depicted as a victim, or ‘poverty porn’. Funny, bold, smart South Asians are almost never shown in the theatre. Rani Moorthy is fighting against this.
Artistic Director of Rasa Theatre, Moorthy is Sri Lankan Tamil. Having lived in Malaysia, Singapore and Manchester, her work is intrinsically focused on the journeys and connections we make as humans, and her unique heritage fuels her desire to get more voices like those around her- funny, brave, powerful- onstage.
When she moved to the UK after a successful career with her own TV show and as an academic in a Singapore University, Moorthy was angered by the lack of representation of her culture in the theatre. She formed the company as an opportunity to give marginalised voices a platform, and began to write the characters she knew were missing.
Moorthy’s work dispels the idea that a show about a certain culture is only for those of that culture. ‘I’m really of the belief that we are all migrants,’ she says thoughtfully, ‘separated by time and maybe a few details. So whenever I do a show, it is not just for South Asians or those curious about those things. Some people will look at a poster of a brown woman in a sari and say that show’s not for me because it sounds ethnic and foreign. It’s not just for a particular community.’
Moorthy is currently touring her newest play, Whose Sari Now, around the UK. Directed by Kimberley Sykes, the one-woman play focuses on the complicated and celebratory relationship with the sari, a garment that has grown up with Moorthy. ‘I took it for granted that the sari was not only this garment that’s brought out for ritual or traditional ceremonies or weddings, but it was an everyday item of clothing.’ Her mother wore it to work and when she was pregnant with Moorthy’s younger sister. Her aunties did the housework in it. ‘It was something they wore with great ease and with great grace.’
It is tradition, as a woman, to have a coming of age ritual when you start menstruating. ‘That’s the first time you wear the sari as a way of launching yourself into the adult world,’ she explains, though hers was ‘very uncomfortable and complicated’ – not what she had expected from seeing her family wear it with ease and woman in films with such elegance. ‘It made me feel different from other people, and it came with a weight of expectation.’
It is partly this generation imbalance that she wants to explore through Whose Sari Now. ‘I rejected a sari as a child and came back to it later in life, and embraced it as an expression of my power and identity. I wanted to know whether second and third generations of South Asians were experiencing the same thing.’
Performing her own writing, Moorthy goes through various transformations of character, each with a different relationship towards the garment. The first, an elderly lady whose fabric draped around her is like a ‘second skin’, can’t understand the younger generations’ attitudes to saris, and, at a loss, begins to give them away to the audience. Here Moorthy points out the lack of funny South Asians on stage. ‘ So this is what I want this woman to be, a hero in character.’ Moving through transgender male, ‘to look at issues of fluidity and identity and what the sari represents for him, having been very much suffocated by his transitioning,’ Moorthy changes into a low caste weaver who cannot afford to wear the clothes she makes and to a woman in the middle of a war zone who wraps up her babies in her wedding sari. ‘It’s a bit of a journey,’ Moorthy says as she zooms from one emotion to the next in her characters. Though her writing embraces humour, it is underlain with a serious message. Performing this play is a way of opening up dialogue around the sari and its culture.
This depth of emotion is important in her work, and this extends beyond individual plays. In all aspects of Moorthy’s cultural heritage, the word ‘Rasa’ has a meaning. The company’s title in Indian theatre suggests all the emotions evoked through art, in Malay it translates as ‘ocean’ and in Tamil, her mother tongue, it means essence of life.
When the phrase ‘colour-blind casting’ is brought into conversation, Moorthy is adamant in her view. ‘It’s superficial,’ she says, ‘absolutely- and even more, it’s insulting.’ She explains it suggests that ‘your whole value and worth in a production is just melanin. I find that very difficult.’ She sees it as a tick-box system rather than having real thought behind it. ‘I’ve played characters on TV who anybody could play,’ she says, ‘and the writers have not bothered to do any research or anything because it’s not an important character.’ It is devastating, she says, ‘when you see a good actor wasted’ through sloppy writing.
Instead of this ‘catch on term’ of colour-blind, Moorthy argues for a different classification: colour-brave. ‘It means you understand what somebody is bringing to the table, but you understand the context of why they’re there. You’re not just doing it to make up the numbers.’
Moorthy’s work fights for a culture unheard on stage to have a voice, in a way that avoids self-pity and encourages humour. Her role models began as ‘dead white men’ because there was no one who looked like her for her to look up to. Now, progress is still slow, ‘and things like Brexit don’t help,’ but Moorthy’s pro-active nature is one step forward. ‘I am the role model,’ she says, ‘because no one is writing these characters. I hope it can change.’
Whose Sari Now? is on at Theatre Royal Stratford East until Dec 17th. More information and tickets here.