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Screenshot from a recent Zoom staging of Divide & Rule. Photo: Maria-Hélèna Pacelli.

Interview: Ottawa playwright Vishesh Abeyratne on Divide & Rule, a Sri Lankan-Canadian play about systemic racism in a big box store

By Maria-Helena Pacelli on September 22, 2020



Some playwrights are ahead of their time. Among them is Vishesh Abeyratne, the Ottawa-based playwright who began tackling complex intersections of systemic racism, class, and gender… in a play. Not just because he enjoys dabbling in post-apocalyptic fiction, but also because his work is insightful, imbued with interrogations around intersecting systems of oppression.

Last year, when theatre could still happen on stage, I attended an early reading of his play Divide & Rule in Montreal, and more recently, an online workshop version hosted by Ottawa’s TACTICS Online Series. Vishesh and I engaged in a socially distanced exchange about his play, and the many issues it raises in terms of systemic racism, lateral violence, and allyship.

I’m conscious of being a white person writing about race issues. In transparency, this conversation was edited, with the goal of centering Vishesh’s voice, amplifying conversations about race issues, and inviting other white people to use their privilege to participate in anti-racist activism, including supporting BIPOC cultural creators.

Apt613: Vishesh, what made you realize this story was a play and how has it been received by different audiences?

I began writing this play in the summer of 2018 while living in Victoria, B.C., a deceptively white city. When I took a job at Value Village, suddenly everyone who looked like me sprung out of the woodwork. I met young Indian and Bangladeshi students and older Sri Lankan immigrants who had been working at the store a long time. This thrift shop was also a microcosm for the systemic racism that pits marginalized people against one another.

One white person said the “made-up languages” (Sinhalese and Tamil, two very real languages) in the play would confuse audiences.

Among BIPOC audiences, the concern around the central reveal is that it could contribute to negative stereotypes surrounding men of colour. I chose to criticize lateral violence through satire.

Meanwhile, one white person said the “made-up languages” in the play (Sinhalese and Tamil, two very real languages)  would confuse audiences. There have been just as many thoughtful responses to the play.

In your play, who is dividing, and who is ruling?

The play examines the lasting consequences of colonial violence in the interactions between two members of a diaspora, but it doesn’t examine Canada’s own shameful colonial past. To answer this question, you’d have to go back through years and years of history; the British ruling powers pitted the Sinhalese and Tamils against each other, which went from peaceful protests to riots to civil war, forcing Tamils out of the country. Our two main characters take up the fight that took place in Sri Lanka, from the privileged place of diaspora, but under a racist capitalist rule that values neither of them.

I would hope that this play spurs interest in further research and visibility for Sri Lankan-Canadians in general. I also hope that it creates opportunities for more of us to tell stories about ourselves that aren’t just the typical inter-generational family drama or misery-porn about the trauma of the civil war.

Which one of them is more “whitewashed” in the end? The guy who uses the same tactics of manipulation and subjugation as his country’s former oppressors? Or the guy who reads Kurt Vonnegut and listens to the Tragically Hip?

I worry about people taking the content of my play to be the definitive dramatization of the “Sri Lankan-Canadian experience.” It’s not, and it can’t be. Like all cultures, we are not homogeneous, and it is only by examining multiple different perspectives that we can hope to fully grasp all of the nuances.

Divide & Rule was featured in Tactics Online Series, led by Bronwyn Steinberg, directed by Jacqui Du Toit, staged virtually on webcam by actors Rahul Gandhi (Lasantha), Arun Varma (Rishan) and Madeleine Boyes-Manseau (Tiffany), and written by Vishesh Abeyratne. Photo: Maria-Hélèna Pacelli.

Do you feel the impact of the most recent uprising of #BLM activism has changed the urgency of your message?

With regard to George Floyd and #BLM, I want to be careful not to draw a false equivalency between the racism black people face and the racism brown people face. Our bodies carry different signifiers with which white people choose to paint us either as threats or as docile “model minorities.” As the latter, we are regularly used as weapons against black people, and failing to acknowledge this is failing to acknowledge our own complicity in the systems that keep us distracted and divided.

That being said, I think that Mr. Floyd’s murder has influenced how people have received Divide and Rule. Progressive white people have shown a greater willingness to examine and question things that BIPOC individuals have always been examining, questioning, and actively fighting against. That shows just how insidious and pernicious racism actually is.

As we also mourn the legacy of Chadwick Boseman (R.I.P.), how has this influenced how you thought about your work?

Like so many, it gutted me to hear of his death. What Chadwick Boseman achieved in his career is to demonstrate how marginalized people, black people, people of colour, can liberate themselves through storytelling. In choosing to tell an Afrofuturist superhero story about a technologically advanced African nation that thrived instead of being stripped of its natural resources by white imperialists, he changed the narratives through which the Western world has typically viewed Africa. Diversity doesn’t only come from the kinds of bodies and voices we see on film or on stage—it comes from the kinds of stories that are being told about those people.

Can you say more about the other systems of oppression at play in your story?

The play associates Lasantha’s feminism with being “Westernized,” using the cover of the naïve foreigner. Meanwhile, Tiffany’s racist beliefs about brown men and misogyny drive the conflict. To find out more without spoilers, you’ll have to catch a reading!

Divide & Rule was featured in the Tactics Online Series, led by Bronwyn Steinberg, directed by Jacqui Du Toit, staged virtually on webcam by actors Rahul Gandhi (Lasantha), Arun Varma (Rishan) and Madeleine Boyes-Manseau (Tiffany), and written by Vishesh Abeyratne.