New Zealand’s first Sri Lankan play


We talk to playwright and founder of Agaram Productions, Ahi Karunaharan about his new play The Mourning After.

What was the initial inspiration for this show?

'Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom' by Stephen Spielberg. The movie was shot in Sri Lanka in the 80s and many of the locals from the villages were extras in that film but hardly any of them actually got to see the finished product. I met an uncle who was one of the featured extras in it and his 'forgotten silver' was the starting point for this show.

How much is drawn from your experiences?

I didn’t experience the devastation of the Boxing Day tsunami in Sri Lanka first hand but the experience of a natural disaster through the Christchurch earthquakes hit me closer to home. This helped in shaping a story about a community rebuilding itself in the fall of a natural disaster. The characters in the show are all real people that I have met. I have added other idiosyncrasies and qualities to these people to make a story that is theatrical and universally appealing.

The Mourning After is the first full length Sri Lankan play to be performed in NZ – why do you think this hasn't been represented before?

The performing arts is not seen a viable full time profession within most migrant South Asian Communities, but there are many talented creatives that roam within the Sri Lankan community making works directly for the community in their native languages of Tamil and Sinhala. I think these voices haven't been represented before because we as a community needed to have a dialogue with ourselves first, but now we are ready to share and want to contribute our stories to the wider theatrical landscape of New Zealand.

How was the process of shifting the show from solo to an ensemble piece?

Absolutely liberating as a writer. The solo format of the work had limitations on what was possible to be performed by a single actor (which was me) whereas the ensemble version now allows for numerous opportunities to raise the stakes for the characters and to play around with multiple scenes playing simultaneously and exploring various story telling techniques that would not have been possible as a solo.

Is Dilmah Tea really the best? And how do you take yours?

I do like a good cuppa. I spent my last summer at a Tea Estate in Sri Lanka researching my next play, plucking tea leaves in the gardens right through to seeing it packed into boxes. I do like Dilmah, but my vote goes for Choysa. Black with crushed ginger and lemon with a bit brown sugar molasses to nibble on.

When disaster strikes, what remains?

The capacity for love and kindness. It’s the one constant that I have seen remain.

Sri Lanka used to be called Serendib by the Arabs (which is the origin of the word “serendipity”) and Ceylon by the British. What is the most serendipitous thing that has happened to you around The Mourning After/in your life?

I went back home to Sri Lanka end of last year for the first time since leaving 25 years ago. I never thought I would ever go back. (The memories of the civil war were too raw for me), but family obligations meant I had to go. Upon arriving, the first song I heard on the ride from the airport to Colombo where I was staying was 'Je Crois Entendre Encore' which was completely serendipitous for me. As this song is the heart and soul of the play 'The Mourning After'.