An image of Sundeep Morrison
Sundeep Morrison | Photo: Ashley Samone

Sundeep Morrison

Actor reflects on growing up in Calgary, racism, and turning those experiences into art

Stephen Hunt

Sundeep Morrison is a Calgary-born writer and theatre artist, now based in Los Angeles. They presented their one-person show Rag Head: An American Story at the United Solo Festival in New York at the end of October. The show explores the emotional impact of a mass shooting by a white supremacist in 2012 at a Sikh gurdwara in Wisconsin that killed seven people. Sundeep talked to The Storytelling Project about the creative process behind it.

Where did the title come from?

I get a lot of questions about that and it’s a pejorative, but I was intentional about choosing that (name) because as a kid, that was the first slur I ever heard someone call my dad.

What happened?

I come from blue-collar immigrants. He was a (Calgary) cab driver. And so I think when I was about six or seven years old, I was riding in the car with my dad, and we had the window down, and this car pulled up next to them, they were making a bit of a ruckus, and I heard one of them call my dad a “rag head.” I knew what a rag was, and I knew what a head was, but what my dad wore was a cloth crown, something very sacred.

And even in that moment, I could see the pain on his face — as a kid, it was something unpleasant and he tried his best to explain to me, they’re being hateful or hurtful, but we’re going to ignore them.

I just remember that moment like, Oh wow! We’re different.

What sort of reactions do you get to the title?

I’ve had some messages from white supremacists and I think when they see the title Rag Head, they think it’s in empathy with their ideology, but then when they realize it’s completely antithetical to what they believe, there’s the hate and vitriol that comes with that as well.

I try to block it out, but that’s kind of the nature of the beast — you’re going to get people coming out who think it’s one thing…

What’s Rag Head like?

It’s seven different voices. I write what I know, and what I know is pain, sadness to be othered and the joy and fear that goes with being a child of immigrant parents who are proud Americans, proud Canadians — because my dad owns a convenience store in rural McFarland, Wisconsin. These characters are based off my dad and my uncle and my mom and my brothers and my cousins. So you have seven stories that are people from my life, people that I grew up with and their perspective and tying together what happened.

What was the genesis of Rag Head?

It was grassroots. Honestly, after I wrote the story and then formulated it into a stage play, I was looking for actors to fill the roles. I wanted to put this up because I thought, if I can make somebody feel something, then maybe I can have them walking out of that theatre feeling differently, knowing this is going on. We’re (Sikhs) the fifth-largest religion and a lot of people don’t know what that entails. 

I was looking to cast it, and a lot of people said, maybe you should put this on as a solo show.

And then I ended up putting it up. I workshopped it in 2017… but to get any story up that touches on race, identity, politics is difficult.

How did your Calgary childhood growing up in Castleridge inform the storytelling?

I loved growing up in Calgary and I think my parents and the southeast Asian community there, Punjabi Sikhs, have such a deep connection to the land. Growing up there, I had memories of going out to the farm and getting milk. Our community would go to Stampede for the livestock shows.

I think there is a big blessing about growing up in a community with small-town roots that you have those values and sense of community. We definitely experienced discrimination and we’re on a forward trajectory and I always have hope for the future, but I hold my time there pretty dear to my heart.

Tell me about the role your grandma played in your growth as a storyteller.

I would sit with her. She raised us, and so even speaking Punjabi — that’s all because of her, she kept our mother tongue alive in our house — so through stories, she would share lessons and I think that’s what really sparked my love of storytelling and made me want to be a storyteller as well.

What does it mean to get to perform your show in New York?

It’s all the feelings: I’m nervous, I’m excited, it’s a big step and a huge honour to be part of Solofest — it’s the largest solo festival in the world, so just to have the show selected (is an honour).

But I do feel because 9/11 was such a life-changing moment for so many of us, but especially for children of immigrants in America, to bring a show — because one of my characters makes mention of 9/11 and how people in the name of any faith commit something horrible, they become the representatives of that faith. But that’s not Islam, and that’s not what Muslims believe — it also sheds light on how we look at other faiths, too.

If someone commits an atrocity in the name of Christianity, they don’t automatically become emblematic of the Christian faith, but how easily we relegate that (status) to immigrants if it’s a faith that’s different from our own. But to bring it to New York, and to share it with that audience is something that’s really deep for me.

How do you live a creative life?

Living a creative life for me is a practice. Early on as a writer and performer I was told to, “write what I know.” My creativity is inspired by exploring the experiences of my community and writing the stories I wish I had when I was young. I know the sorrow of feeling like an outsider, but I also know the joy of belonging to a beautiful and rich culture that has shaped me.

Why does it matter to live a creative life?

I see creativity and the art that comes from it as a form of healing. Creativity can be a vehicle for change to uplift and inspire. When we see reflections of ourselves we can feel less alone and more connected to one another.

Any plans to bring Rag Head to Calgary?

Oh my gosh. It would be an immense honour to bring the show to you. That’s the dream, that’s the goal — to be able to share the story in the place that shaped me. That would be a huge honour and privilege.

About The Storytelling Project

On November 16, 2015, Calgary Arts Development hosted a working session with approximately 30 creative Calgarians from various walks of life. Many of the small working groups voiced the need to gather and share more stories of people living creative lives.

That need has turned into The Storytelling Project.

The Storytelling Project raises awareness about Calgarians who, by living creative lives, are making Calgary a better city, effecting positive change and enriching others’ lives.

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