World’s A Stage: Spotlight on Sri Lanka

The theatre scene in Sri Lanka has been long in the making. As a country with roots in Theravada Buddhism, many believed that it was vital to tend toward solitary contemplation versus congregational practices or participation in community life. Thus, theatre arts were hard to come by until the 1950s when a serious scene began to develop. Local theatre has since become a melange of early folk ritual, dance drama, and Western theatre, creating a medium unlike any other.

The most recent hit out of the country is a new musical by Jehan Aloysius entitled ‘Rag’ which grapples with the divisive practice of ragging – a ritual seen by some as an equalizing activity, and by others as worse than bullying and hazing. Ragging is typically enforced by senior students on younger ones and includes forced consumption of alcohol, insects, and/or chemicals, physical exertion to the point of organ failure, and an assortment of humiliating activities meant to break the newcomers upon their arrival.

The show’s creator, director, composer and lead actor, Aloysius, has been developing the show for more than ten years, sparked by his own experiences with ragging at university. When Aloysius first received his university acceptance letter he was filled with dread and hid it from his mother. Four months later she found it, and off to school he went.

During his eventual ragging, he was spared some of the worst practices but he says that his classmates underwent processes worse than what he could have imagined. Some of these events have made their way into the show. While the show circles instances of rape, discrimination, shame and suicide, the writer’s efforts to reveal the darker side of university life ultimately provide for a cathartic experience.

Aloysius sought out a cast who had experienced ragging first-hand and after auditioning 250 people, he assembled his lead cast of 12. The story follows the creator’s character, Joseph, who starts a non-violent anti-ragging movement which runs into opposing forces who say it must be violently resisted. The result is an empowering musical that’s breaking boundaries abroad.

The show’s standing ovations and rapturous praise stand testament to the idea that creative expression continues to be one of the best mediums for processing struggle.
If something goes wrong, make art.