After a violent act of hatred rocked Sikh playwright Sundeep Morrison’s community, they vowed to shine a light on the dark heart of America’s post-9/11 xenophobia and racism — pouring personal experience and political context into a powerful tale of the fatal consequences of bigotry in Rag Head, premiering Off-Broadway this Friday at Theatre Row on W42nd Street as part of the United Solo Theatre Festival.
The solo show — named after a racist slur hurled at people of the South Asian and Middle Eastern diaspora after 9/11 — features Morrison, a queer, nonbinary performer embodying seven different characters. The plot centers on the 2012 mass shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin where a white supremacist shot and killed six worshippers and wounded four others. Five of the dead were turban-wearing men and one a woman. One of the wounded, a priest, died eight years later as a result.
When Morrison heard breaking news about the massacre they feared for family who lived nearby. The mass murder was the worst attack on a house of worship until the Charleston church massacre of 2015. Thankfully, their relatives were safe, but that fear led to the writing of Rag Head.
Taking on the personas of Sikh members of the community, Muslim residents in the area, as well as the bigoted and biased neighbors around them, Morrison, a graduate of the American Musical Dramatic Academy, weaves an emotionally impactful story detailing the deadly collision of heightened bigotry in post-9/11 America and those who were forced to defend themselves as “American enough”, based on the experiences of the playwright’s family and friends.
Morrison, who grew up in rural Canada before relocating with their family to Wisconsin, witnessed America’s swift scrutiny on South Asian immigrants and their families in real time. “Post-9/11, everything shifted, especially for immigrants and children of immigrants,” they said.
Racists thought turban-wearing Sikhs were in some way associated with Osama bin Laden, because he wore a turban. On September 15 2001, Balbir Singh Sodhi was murdered by a bigot at his petrol station in Phoenix, AZ, with the racist saying he wanted to “shoot some towel-heads.” The murder was a harbinger of violence and bigotry.
“All of a sudden, my parents who were proud Americans — and proud Canadians before they relocated to Wisconsin — felt like we had to prove our ‘American-ness’ and we almost had to have this sense of hyper-patriotism,” Morrison said. “I remember when there were American flag bumper stickers being passed out — and from my point of view, I thought, ‘why do we have to prove our love for this country?’ It was really, really heartbreaking.”
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There was a heightened scrutiny on their family as Sikhs, and on anyone visibly from the South Asian and Middle Eastern diasporas. “There was this focus on how we looked,” said Morrison. “A lot of people can just wake up and exist in the world. But being a Sikh and having brothers and even sisters who wore turbans — everyone was suddenly taking stock of how we presented.
“I watched the fear of what was happening in the world and the increased xenophobia within our family and our community,” they said, Sikhs were frequently attacked in the months following 9/11 often simply for wearing a traditional turban. Facing harassment, Morrison’s parents were forced to install a bulletproof plexiglass shield in their family’s gas station convenience store as a measure of protection against threats toward the Sikh community.
The 2012 Oak Creek Gurdwara shooting was the tipping point for Morrison to put their experience on paper. Lving and working as an artist in LA, their parents were still in Wisconsin at the time of the murders. “Like a lot of Americans, my parents go to temple every Sunday, and there’s only three places of worship in the area,” said Morrison.
“When the shooting happened, I got the call to turn on the news and I could not stop thinking about my mom — she sings and could have easily been onstage that day. It was a feeling that I just couldn’t shake. It rocked my family,” they added.
Morrison worked through their anger and sadness in a writer’s group, putting their family’s experiences and the terrible events of the 2012 shooting together into a character study. “I wanted to get my feelings out, and that’s how the story started,” said Morrison, who credits their maternal grandmother with instilling a love of storytelling and being a “keeper of history” for their family’s cultural heritage. “Listening to her experiences of growing up in India, and her immigrant experience really fostered that love of storytelling for me,” said Morrison.
The rest of their family would also play a vital role in the creation of Rag Head, as the writer drew from their experiences as inspiration for several of the show’s characters. “They’re all based on my family or people in my life,” added Morrison, adding that they had plenty of stories to draw from to demonstrate the difficult dynamic of living in a community suddenly suspicious of your existence.
“I drew from seeing my aunt have this fear post 9/11 for my cousin, who wears a turban and has a beard — because a clean-shaven and clean-cut man is going to be received very differently,” they said. “I saw the effect on Muslim friends who were targets of abuse for wearing a hijab — each of the characters is really personal to me.”
Morrison hopes the show will shine a light on “the soft hate, and the overt hate” toward anyone deemed “other” that has grown over the past two decades of American history. Reflecting on the experiences of living in both Canada and the US as a Sikh, Morrison said that while “hate and xenophobia and indifference know no borders,” they felt it important to focus on the phenomenon of open bigotry that exponentially increased during the Trump years and beyond.
“We had a president espousing hate at the highest level of governance — and when our leaders have this sort of rhetoric, you’re going to see it echoed in society,” said Morrison. “All of a sudden, you feel like what’s being uttered behind your back is now being said to your face, and not just by anybody, but by elected leaders, and that is terrifying.” They hope that the show can not only highlight the unsettling pattern of discrimination but also give audience members a new perspective. “If I can make you feel something, and if I can shift your perspective, hopefully when you walk out of the theater, you’re thinking a bit differently, especially if you’re not a person of color,” they added.
The show has toured theaters around the country and Morrison is already grateful for the impact it has had on audience members. “Once people come to the theater and they see the story unfold, they’re moved,” they said, “especially when they realize it’s based on actual events — there’s that emotional impact.” They were even able to present the piece in Wisconsin, complete with a post-show talkback between one of the victim’s children and a reformed white supremacist, who have been working together to combat hate. “To bring it to the community that inspired the story was really powerful,” said Morrison.
Now, they are looking forward to bringing the play to New York, a place intricately connected with the events at hand, as well as Morrison’s old stomping grounds. “I’m a graduate of the American Musical Dramatic Academy and so for me, as a creative person, it’s a full circle moment,” they said. “It’s a huge honor to bring it off-Broadway, but especially because New York is essential to the story. I’m grateful to share it with people here.”
Morrison remains committed to creating new works that advocate for a greater understanding of others’ perspectives — first, with their book Lady Bitch Whore, a treatise on the challenges of existing in a gendered society that was inspired by the birth of their daughter. “Motherhood and being a parent and even coming into my own identity as nonbinary has been a really big part of my journey,” said Morrison.
They are also busy wrapping a brand new short film — “a queer, south Asian love story that I’m excited to share,” said Morrison — and working on the adaptation of Rag Head in hopes of further spreading its message of unrelenting honesty and understanding. “I’m a hopeful person — my parents have planted it in me as a human being to hope for the best and look for the good,” said Morrison.
“But we are bearing witness to the rise of antisemitism and xenophobia in America, and it’s hard to look for the good when hate has been mobilized and given a platform by our leaders, and it’s really terrifying,” they added. “But I still have hope for America — I will always be hopeful — I believe in the power of storytelling and the choices we make. I’ve poured my guts into Rag Head and at its core, it’s an advocacy piece — and that’s why I want to share it with as many people as I can.”
Rag Head plays Theatre Row on Friday October 28. Tickets can be purchased here.