Fully Sikh marks the theatrical debut of spoken word performer Sukhjit Kaur Khalsa. Performed by Khalsa as a story-telling exercise, the piece is supported by an impressively flexible and transformative kitchen set (by Isla Shaw), and accompanied by Pavan Kumar Hari (providing music, sound effects and additional comedic roles). Australia has a long tradition of broad humour playing on ethnic stereotypes, from Austen Tayshus to the wildly successful stage show Wogs Out of Work (1987). Although Fully Sikh’s title suggests similarities to this approach, the generally mild, humanist tone makes it closer to a transposition of the film Looking For Alibrandi (2000) into the world of the expatriate Punjabi Sikh community in Australia. The mood and topic of Fully Sikh also parallels Bend it Like Beckham (2002).

Fully SikhSukhjit Kaur Khalsa and Pavan Kumar Hari. Photograph © Daniel J Grant

Khalsa is a charismatic and buoyant narrator, leading the audience through what is, in many ways, a familiar female coming-of-age story. Our protagonist must negotiate her way between claiming her ethnic heritage in defiance of white peers and school bullies, whilst nevertheless challenging or reworking her parents’ idealisation of life in the old country and how they see such values of decorum and culture to be maintained in the new country.

The differences in content lie in the particular progression which the Sukhjit character makes through these competing alternatives. Unlike Josie Alibrandi, who chafes from an early age under the strictures of her first generation immigrant family, Sukhjit is shown in the first scenes as lovingly embraced in the kitchen within the arms and culture of her Punjabi mother. The Sikh religion emerged in the 15th century in large part as a reaction against the Hindu caste system and its elaborate rituals. The most famous practice of observant Sikhs is to honour the body which God has given us, and hence not to cut the hair. The turban serves to cover what Sukhjit’s mother calls the “luscious locks” which Sikhs cultivate. Rituals around hair and especially shaving therefore become central to the narrative of Fully Sikh.

Sukhjit is initially happy to echo her mother in being “brown and hairy,” safely ensconced within a kitchen which quite literally becomes the entrance to the temple at which Sukhjit and her family pray. Sukhjit does however fall from grace. Seduced by dreams of a cute white boyfriend and the possibility of joining the circle of cool white girls, she shaves her legs. Her damnation by her community and family is, however, represented on stage as only a short misstep, and the performer quickly reclaims her heritage, her unshaven legs, and the family abode as a space of welcome, food and nurturing.

Indeed, Sukhjit’s internal and external conflict with Punjabi Sikhism and her family revolves around gender rather than creed. In theory, Sikhism is a democratic, gender-neutral religion. In a crucial scene, Sukhjit reminds her parents that despite being raised in Sikhism, her mother tells her that the kitchen is their place, where women’s function is to support the men. Sukhjit says she will not follow this pattern. The 17th birthday party which concludes the play is, however, still firmly located within the kitchen set, leaving unresolved what alternative is being proposed.

Sikhism therefore acts as a unifying cord not only for the character on stage, but also for the dramatic content. One of the strongest scenes is where Sukhjit demonstrates the tying of the turban, explaining how the folds of the cloth represent the complex binding of soul and belief, a reminder of our links to the wider world and the divine.

Fully SikhSukhjit Kaur Khalsa and Pavan Kumar Hari. Photograph © Daniel J Grant

As a premiere work from a performer with no theatrical training, Fully Sikh is adept, if rough. As a poet, Khalsa usually performs with a microphone, but none is used in Fully Sikh – which is rather mystifying given that Khalsa must at one point compete with a booming beat to present a tongue-in-cheek rap. Khalsa is therefore not accustomed to filling the theatre with her physical presence and unamplified voice. Khalsa maintains audience attention with an astute text closely tied to her biography, but energy levels are uneven and the performance subdued. Indeed, the production is, by design, intended to be proximate and intimate, drawing the audience into Sukhjit’s domestic nest.

The piece would be ideal for a more cabaret style venue, such as represented by the old fire-damaged theatre of La Mama in Melbourne. In this spirit, prospective audiences are told that Fully Sikh will feature “a Punjabi meal cooked live on stage,” but in truth this translates into a mere four volunteers rolling balls of naan before the performance, whilst a rice cooker is left steaming away on in the corner. Similar aspirations towards a shared three-dimensional engagement with audience leads lighting designer Lucy Birkinshaw to illuminate the entire width of the stage and seating banks for much of the time, which has a tendency to diminish the performance. In a number of key traumatic or spiritually resonant moments, Birkinshaw picks out the vulnerable but firm Khalsa against a disappearing, misty background, causing the reach of the performance to spring forth from Khalsa’s modest point of energy. It is a strategy which could have been used more often.

Despite these teething problems, Fully Sikh is an enjoyable and surprisingly lyrical work which one suspects will end up touring the eastern states. Catch it in Perth while you can.

Fully Sikh plays at Studio Underground until November 3