Q&A with Stay Woke Playwright, Aran Thangaratnam

Playwright, improvisor and doctor Aran Thangaratnam has written a biting new comedy exploring wokeness, race, family, and the struggle to reconcile different racial and parental experiences among siblings.

Aran Thangaratnam's new play, 'Stay Woke' is a subversive new comedy which has opened at Malthouse Theatre on March 2. It's a play about two Sri Lankan Tamil Australian brothers, Niv and Sai, heading to the mountains to bury the hatchet on a lifelong rivalry. I sat down with the playwright and discussed whether he's more of a golden child or black sheep, what he wants to explore in brown characters, and what annoys him about white tourists visiting Sri Lanka.

The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.


What's Stay Woke about?

It's about these two brothers and partners that go away on a ski trip to Mount Buller, and it's the first time they've hung out for a while. It's about them trying to reconcile as adults. One of the characters is the golden child and the other one's a little left behind. The two of them have had different experiences with their parents, they've had different experiences with being brown in Australia, and they have a very South Asian relationship - there's a competitiveness there and it's not very emotionally open.

Pretty quickly they get into an argument originally around wokeness. The younger one hasn't really started thinking about systemic racism and hasn't quite taken that step toward anti-racism. He has more of an assimilation mindset and has a white partner. While the older brother is happy to celebrate his culture.


Source: https://www.malthousetheatre.com.au/tickets/malthouse-theatre/stay-woke/

What inspired the play?

I spent a few years in the inner-north of Melbourne and I was expecting it to be some sort of multicultural dreamland. But there were weird power dynamics even among woke kids. They'll like flex on you if you're not woke enough.


Which brother are you closest to in the play?

Probably the younger brother. The golden child. He doesn't like conflict and makes jokes to release tension.


What sets off the conflict?

The younger brother's partner mentions she's been to Sri Lanka and really enjoyed it. The older brother brings up that Sri Lanka has been really fraught in terms of civil war and it's not been a paradise in the way that she's experienced it.

White tourists sometimes tell you about the beaches in Sri Lanka but they don't really engage with the culture in any way. They're like, the beaches are nice, and then I'm like, oh my family fled.

I went to Sri Lanka once growing up, and we were out and about when a bomb went off at a police station. My dad was like, we have to go home right now. They were were afraid, because he thought they might round us up and murder us.


Was there ever a time that it was important for you to fight for accurate representation for South Asian people?

There are things you have to put your foot down for. In my play, the older brother is queer and doesn't get along with his parents well. A few people (in the development workshops) were like, why does he even care? Why doesn't he just like leave the family and start a new family? But there's a big ethnic layer that's built into us. You always want to have a good relationship with your parents. Or maybe not even a good relationship, but you almost have a feeling like you can't really leave.


What's your favourite moment in the play?

Early in the play, the characters are listening to that whip nae nae song. The younger brother's white partner does the dance, and this is just as the two couples are meeting. It lands so flat. It's so awkward and uncomfortable, I just love watching it and the actress is great.


What kind of brown characters do you want to represent in your work?

I just want them to be complex characters. There've been a lot of loveable antiheroes recently, like in Breaking Bad. I kind of just wanted that for a brown person. Somebody we still love, even though they're annoying. In Stay Woke, the younger brother is a pest, he's always needling his older brother in a childish way. The older brother can get quite aggressive. He's like the guy at the dinner party being a bit too extra and messing up the mood.


Your background is in improv. How's that helped your playwriting?

In improv you set the base reality and add an element into it that changes the situation. One thing I've learnt is that you always follow the most fun thing. No matter what you think the scene is gonna be, if something more fun can happen, you're supposed to follow that, even if it means restructuring.


What do you want people to think about after they leave the theatre?

Everyone's on this spectrum of wokeness, and it'll be interesting to see people not being sure who they should agree with, or people agreeing with someone because they're afraid of being judged. I kind of want people to be confused about who they relate to and who they think is right.


What are your plans for your next piece of work?

Not sure. It's always going to be comedy, and have brown people in it, and probably some frayed relationships. Outside of that, I'm not too sure to be honest. Right now I'm inspired by Extras. The characters always get caught, and they double down on their bullshit. I love it.


Get tickets to 'Stay Woke' here. Playing March 2 - 13 at the Malthouse Theatre.