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FULLY SIKH @ State Theatre Centre gets 9.5/10

Fully Sikh @ The State Theatre Centre
Saturday, October 12, 2019

9.5/10

Fifteen years ago, I stepped into my first English Lit class at Shenton College, an awkward and shy 16 year old whose family had just moved to Perth from Pakistan. I held my breath as my teacher called roll and managed to mangle my name in a way that still haunts me to this day. Over the course of the afternoon Doreshawar Khan became Rey Khan and my first job as the “token Desi girl” was to translate the Punjabi scenes in Bend It Like Beckham for my classmates. This is just a snippet of what it was like being one of a handful of Desi Australians in Perth in 2003 and what a long way we have come since then.

Fast forward to 2019, I am at the Studio Underground at the State Theatre Centre, surrounded by a sea of Desi Perthians. In a corner, a young boy dressed in a shalwar suit is showing a couple how to play Carom, his eyes sparkling with delight as beautifully printed swathes of fabric flap gently above him. In another corner a Sikh man is in the process of tying a turban for a guest while his wife watches on mesmerised by the delicacy of the process. As I stood at the bar with my Thums Up Cola (an Indian brand), I could feel my brain whirring away excitedly while snippets of full bodied Punjabi, Hindi, and Urdu floated towards me. To say the air was electric with anticipation was putting it mildly. As we removed our shoes and entered the theatre space, the smell of cumin and turmeric washed over me and I was suddenly hit with an overwhelming mix of nostalgia and pride. With bare feet on the ground, I once again played the role of translator, this time translating a beautifully heartfelt acknowledgement of country from Punjabi to English for my friend Natalie. A little girl dressed in a shalwar suit began to clap excitedly as the performers took to the stage.

And so began Black Swan Theatre’s last show of the decade and the first of its kind in all of Australia. It had been a long wait for this moment for many of us and it was exciting to be at the cusp of a bold new phase in Australian theatre: The first Australian Sikh theatre production.

Dressed in a pair of black leggings and a shirt the colour of marigolds, Sukhjit Kaur Khalsa had a maturity of presence that far surpassed her 25 years. Seamlessly melding memories with movement, marrying bhangra to slam poetry, this 75 minute piece saw the performer and award winning poet in her element. Drawing on her experiences as a young Sikh Australian, Sukhjit treated the audience to life in the Khalsa household and in the shoes of a young person treading the fine line between honouring one’s culture and living one’s truth.  Audience members were encouraged to engage with the performance at several points including a request to click their fingers at any point that resonated with them. Issues like sexism, racism, slut shaming and body shaming were deconstructed and examined with thoughtfulness and wit. Judging by all the nodding heads and clicking fingers, this was familiar territory for a lot of audience members thus speaking to the timeliness of the piece.

Sukhjit’s collaborator and co-star Pavan Kumar is equal parts musical and comedic genius in this piece. His ability to create complex soundscapes helped engage the audience on another sensory level and complemented Sukhjit’s style of storytelling beautifully. This up and coming musician’s repertoire includes traditional instruments such as tabla and harmonium as well as keyboard and even pots and pans. The only thing more impressive than his musical prowess was his ability to morph into supporting characters in Sukhjit’s story at the drop of a hat (or Woolies visor)!  

With a rice cooker simmering away in a corner, a bushel of chillis safely nestled in a fruit bowl and a wall of spices that was sure to make any Desi Aunty jealous, set and costume designer Isla Shaw brought authenticity to the stage by perfectly recreating the heart and soul of every South Asian household – the kitchen! As the story unfolds on stage, the space evolves into a bedroom, a dancefloor, an auditorium and even a Gurdwara. Cleverly constructed and beautifully curated it was easy to see that the set was a labour of love, careful research and respectful collaboration. 

Like a perfectly executed thaali, Fully Sikh balanced the many flavours of growing up between cultures. From tender mother daughter moments, to the saccharine sweetness of a first crush, all the way to fiery moments of being body shamed, and racially vilified, Fully Sikh takes a no holds barred approach to depicting all the ups and downs of growing up brown in a post 9/11 Australia. Creating a new work is hard enough without the added stress of presenting a deeply personal story for the wider community to consume, but Sukhjit and the team behind Fully Sikh managed to do so with grace.  It is this vulnerability and honesty that made it an endearing and poignant piece of Australian theatre. 

At the launch of the 2019 season, Black Swan’s Artistic Director Claire Watson spoke passionately about creating space for new narratives in theatre and presenting Perth audiences with fresh perspectives and stories. Fully Sikh is testament to that vision of inclusivity in the arts and embodies the spirit of the 2019 theme (“where the heart is”). 

A  beautiful and poetic ode to Sikh culture, community and coming of age, Fully Sikh is a generous Punjabi feast for the senses and a clear call to be unapologetically authentic. A must watch for every Australian and no better show to usher in a new decade in Perth Theatre.

DORESHAWAR “ISKRA” KHAN

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