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The stage is set: Stories from the Thamizh diaspora

A reflection on local Sri Lankan Tamil millennials inspired by upcoming theatre production Stay Woke


*Please note, this piece references genocide.


When I moved to Melbourne from Sydney, there was one thought that passed my mind: where the Sri Lankans be at? That’s why I was thrilled to watch Stay Woke at Malthouse Theatre to connect to my culture and lived experience within a state I have called home for the past nine years.


Melbourne hosts 49% of this country’s Sri Lankan population, mainly located in the south eastern suburbs. However, if you aren’t raised in the city, building those community connections from scratch is hard. Over the almost decade, though I have connected with other Sri Lankans professionally, it doesn’t quite compare to the community connections forged while being raised in Western Sydney.


Much of the Sri Lankan community migrated to Australia during the 1980s during the Hawke Government’s skilled migration and humanitarian regime. It enabled families persecuted and separated by circumstance to reunite and form communities in this country.


Arriving in so-called Australia as first-generation migrants, the plight of sovereign Eelam Thamizhs still felt raw for my generation, as it does for older brother Niv in Stay Woke. We’re so exposed to Sri Lanka’s politics through our parents’ lens, dividing ourselves by race and religion, that we often co-opt those ideologies and separatist attitudes, despite indulging in the privileges that being a settler in the Western world offers.

 


As a privileged diaspora, do we still have a right to speak on the Eelam Thamizh cause, despite it not impacting our daily lives? There exists a fine line between acts of solidarity and self-righteous indignation, and neither position is right or wrong, but speaks to a summation of our parental and peer influences, and cultural consumption. According to the United Nations, between 80,000 to 100,000 Sri Lankan peoples have died during the 26-year conflict, including those attributed to state-sponsored violence, with justice yet to yield for those families.


During the 90s and noughties, the lack of representation meant that many Sri Lankan millennials and beyond co-opted the ideologies of Black culture -  being one of the most prominent narratives of race and class in the mainstream, particularly due to the ubiquity of hip hop. Artists, like M.I.A, one of the only prominent members of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora in pop culture, often draws criticism for highlighting the injustice of committed war crimes in Sri Lanka, but still remains staunch in her convictions. 


Bringing these stories into white art spaces creates friction, particularly in how to engage the local diaspora in culturally safe ways. This is why Stay Woke is so important – it gives our generation something to connect with that’s our own. It provides a provocation for a new generation that’s more woke, the titular term originating from African-American Vernacular English (ironic in itself).

 


Led by a powerhouse team, including Priyanka Bromhead (Community Engagement Lead Consultant and founder of we are the mainstream), Prinita Thevarajah (socials content queen) and Thinesh Thillai (Community Engagement Strategist), initiatives include two ‘Short Eatz’ evenings on 2 and 16 April, focused on creating cultural vibes post-show. The play’s broader themes of exploring queerness, identity, anti-Blackness and interracial relationships in the Eelam Thamizh community are being extrapolated as part of community engagement initiatives for the Darlinghurst Theatre showings between 26 March – 17 April, in a series of podcasts, hosted by Priyanka and Thinesh.


‘Shorts Eatz’, stemming from the colloquial term for Sri Lankan finger food, or palahaaram, will feature a free serve of signature Tamil snacks and inspired cocktails, local Tamil performing artists and a cinematic compilation of essay photos and video footage submitted by the global diaspora. And of course, you can’t miss the Spotify playlist of bangers featuring the best of 90s and noughties kuthu, Kollywood, Carnatic and hip-hop classics.


According to Community Engagement Lead Priyanka Bromhead, “Short Eatz is about showcasing the breadth and depth of Thamizh arts and culture while celebrating our resilience and resistance. We’re still here, and we’re thriving.”


Community solidarity by engaging with stories like Stay Woke indicates to the arts industry that our stories deserve to be told – and that we should be the ones telling them.

 

Book tickets now to Stay Woke at Darlinghurst Theatre between 26 March – 17 April. Don’t miss community ‘Short Eatz’ nights on 2 and 16 April at 7.30pm.


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About the author

Vyshnavee Wijekumar is freelance writer and culture critic of Sri Lankan Tamil heritage. She has pieces published in The Age, The Monthly, The Saturday Paper, The Big Issue, Refinery29 Australia and ABC Everyday. She is also on the board of the Melbourne Women in Film Festival and the fortnightly film reviewer for Triple R Breakfasters.


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