Sundeep Morrison remembers being about six or seven years old, stopped at a red light in 1980s Calgary, with the windows down.
There are men in the truck next to the family, being loud. Then they turned their attention to Morrison’s dad.
“They called him a rag head,” Morrison recalled.
Growing up in the northeast community of Castleridge, the former Calgarian said there was a realization of what racism was before they even knew what the word meant.
“I knew what a rag was, and I knew what a head was, but to me, as a kid, what my dad wore on his head was like, a crown, if you will. It was this beautiful symbol,” Morrison said.
Morrison, after seeing the pain on their dad’s face, asked what it meant.
“He was like, ‘oh, they’re trying to be mean. We’re just going to ignore it,’” Morrison said.
Morrison has taken those experiences, combined it with the family’s reaction to an August 2012 attack on a Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin and turned it into a new off-Broadway, solo performance called Rag Head: An American Story. It airs Oct. 28 in New York City’s Theatre District.
In the play, Morrison, who plays all of the characters, explores hate, hope and American identity. The characters are linked by the one hateful act from a decade ago, in a post-9/11 world where racism against Sikhs, Muslims and other immigrants had risen dramatically.
Morrison’s family lived in Wisconsin at the time the attack that killed six people happened. They still live in rural Wisconsin.
“I was in LA when everything unfolded. It shook me to my core,” they recalled.
“You always think of your parents’ safety, but for the first time in my life I thought, ‘My God, how safe are they?’ It is extremely unnerving.”
Processing the anger and the sadness
Morrison said writing has always been a tool to process feelings. After the attack, the story writing process began.
“I first I wrote it as kind of a therapeutic writing practice as a short story,” Morrison said.
Then, after presenting it to peers and mentors they thought there was a bigger message that should be shared with others. It evolved into a proposed stage play, where other actors would play the seven roles.
Then, it morphed into a solo show.
“The characters are so personal; every character in the show is based on someone that I’ve met, or someone in my life,” Morrison said.
The main character is based off Morrison’s dad and uncles. The mother character off their mother and aunt. It seemed appropriate, given Morrison’s classical training, to draw from personal experiences with them to bring the characters to life.
Morrison recalls the sense of fear in the Sikh community in the US and Canada about how they looked physically. People were cutting their hair, questioning whether they should wear turbans, Morrison said.
Remembering the bright times in Calgary
Morrison’s family spent several years in the city. They attended O.S. Geiger Elementary School before moving away when they reached teenage years.
Morrison’s father was a cab driver and mother a seamstress. The family hub was the Gurdwara in the area. Many uncles and cousins still live in the city.
One of the things Morrison cherished was the Punjabi Sikh community’s relationship with the land. There’s a real sense of pride in having that common ground, they said.
Trips out to the farm to get milk from the farmers and community trips to the Calgary Stampede to look at the livestock.
“That would remind my dad and my parents of India. So, really, kind of beautiful, immersive moments like that where it’s like a beautiful melting pot,” Morrison said.
“I have more good memories than negative. I think that’s the beautiful part of a good, Canadian upbringing in that sense, is that from a very young age our education system exposes us to much, much more.
“Those are things I’m grateful for.”
Morrison is also grateful for the opportunity to share this story in their old stomping grounds in the Big Apple. Being a graduate of the American Musical Dramatic Academy, Morrison is honoured to be able to bring this story to the stage.
“To be able to bring a piece that’s so deeply personal, but it has, I feel, an important message that I would love to share, it such a huge honour to be a part of all this.”