A playwright’s determination, despite censorship in Sri Lanka, to stage an immersive play dealing with LGBT issues in Colombo wins a prestigious award.
COLOMBO — A sense of calm has returned to the capital, two months after the Easter Sunday bombings. Traffic has returned to the streets and even gay pride events will go ahead, although it will be a somber celebration.
Two shirtless Sri Lankan men kiss and fool around in their underwear in a Colombo apartment. No, this isn’t a sensational news story. It’s a scene from the 2018 Gratiaen Prize-winning play The Ones Who Love You So.
The play was to be staged in Colombo for Pride celebrations, and for the first time in Jaffna. But it has been put on hold due to the continuing state of emergency following the terror attacks that killed 258 and injured 500 people.
The Gratiaen Prize is an annual literary award recognizing the best in Sri Lanka. This is the first win for Sri Lankan playwright Arun Welandawe-Prematilleke.
“It seems ludicrous to go out and ask for money to do the show after the attacks,” he said. “I pushed back my timeframe to stage the show at a later date.”
Welandawe-Prematilleke, 31, is known for his immersive style of theatre where the audience chooses which narrative in the story to follow. He calls it “a live action choose-your-own-adventure novel.”
“I wrote the play about dating and hook up applications like Grindr,” Welandawe-Prematilleke said. “It’s not autobiographical by any means. It is certainly based on a lot of truth. I wanted to talk about the specific experience of a gay man for the first time.”
In Sri Lanka, censorship is commonplace. The script for The Ones Who Love You So was submitted to the government’s Public Performance Board last year. It was rejected twice before being approved by a panel of judges and allowed to go into production last August.
The Ones Who Love You So was written in fits and starts two years before neighbouring India shed its colonial era law decriminalizing homosexuality. Welandawe-Prematilleke hoped his play would force a discussion in Sri Lanka on LGBTIQ+ rights, but he admits it has only had nominal impact.
“We don’t have a theatre culture that talks about this in the way [that] it’s talked about in the west,” wrote Sri Lankan performer Sumathy Sivamohan.
Welandawe-Prematilleke will publish the script to The Ones Who Love You So. In Sri Lanka, only five English theatre scripts have been published to date. Colombo’s most prolific theatre is produced not in English but in the Sinhala and Tamil languages.
Tracy Holsinger is artistic director at Colombo’s Mind Adventures Theatre Company. She met Welandawe-Prematilleke when he was 18. The two began working together on writing original English language theatre.
When Welandawe-Prematilleke returned to Sri Lanka after six years of studies and acting in the U.K., he went from one hit play to the next with Mind Adventures. He decided to leave the company last year to work independently, culminating in his winning the 2018 Gratiaen Prize.
“Arun is a really good storyteller and he has a great ear for dialogue,” Holsinger said. “I would come up with a concept and the dialogue would come from him. The more he wrote, I could see there was unlimited potential.”
Welandawe-Prematilleke is now working on a new script, but he admits it will be hard to top The Ones Who Love You So. The looming threat of a Public Performance Board arbitrarily denying productions from being staged for the public, or of having a play cancelled mid-run, scares most playwrights, but Welandawe-Prematilleke views it as a challenge to skirt the censors.
“I have Sri Lankan friends who write in Sinhala and they receive approval from the censor board and have the play revoked in the middle of a run because it upset someone upstairs,” he said.
“I’m like a child. If you tell me no I’m going to do it anyway [laughs]. I’m just a brat basically.”
Holsinger believes despite censorship, the government doesn’t view English language theatre as a threat to Sri Lanka’s conservative values and culture.
“We have a lot more license because the audience is small compared to Sinhala and Tamil theatre,” she said. “In terms of original Sri Lankan theatre dealing with LGBTIQ issues, no, I can’t say it’s been done before.”
Sivamohan believes The Ones Who Love You So is an example of a Sri Lankan playwright challenging social customs and norms in the South Asian country.
“The moment I read Arun’s script I told him to edit and submit it [for the Gratiaen Prize]. I knew it make the shortlist and would win,” Holsinger added.
Welandawe-Prematilleke expects The Ones Who Love You So to return to a Colombo stage this October. He’s also in talks with a Canadian director about taking the prize-winning play on the road from Colombo to Toronto.