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‘Himmat’ hits home for playwright in Surrey hospital-set story about family courage

A Q&A with Gavan Cheema, who also stars in daughter-father play staged by Theatre Conspiracy
Gavan Cheema and Munish Sharma in the 2022 production of “Himmat,” a play set at Surrey Memorial Hospital and staged at Surrey Arts Centre’s Studio Theatre from April 18-20. (Contributed photo: S. Race)

In a five-performance run, Gavan Cheema’s “Himmat” will debut in Surrey at the arts centre’s Studio Theatre starting Thursday, April 18.

Premiered in Vancouver two years ago, the Theatre Conspiracy-presented play is set in Surrey Memorial Hospital with “a powerful story about resilience, redemption, and the strength of family love,” told through flashbacks.

The Surrey-raised Cheema wrote the script and also stars as Ajit, daughter of a man (Munish Sharma) who awaits cancer treatment. In English and Punjabi, the two interrogate their memories and discover how their family dynamics have changed over time.

In a phone call between rehearsals, Cheema talked about the origins of “Himmat” (which means “courage” in Punjabi) and the importance of staging the play in her Surrey hometown. Here’s the Q&A:

Does staging “Himmat” here in Surrey have extra meaning for you?

“I grew up in Surrey, and my parents still live there, within walking distance from Surrey Art Centre, so I think it was really important for me to do the show in the city that it’s set in. So much of these characters are informed by being diaspora Punjabi people from a city that’s 41 per cent Punjabi speaking, and all that comes with that. I’ve done some work in Surrey, but most of my practice is in Vancouver. I feel really excited to be able to do a show out there. Also, when I was in high school, we did bhangra competitions at Surrey Arts Centre, so it’s a space I’m definitely familiar with, but not a space that I’ve occupied as an adult artist, so it’s definitely a homecoming in a lot of ways.”

Is this play autobiographical at all?

“The show is inspired by interviews that I had with my Dad — I use the word ‘interview’ lightly, it’s mostly stories that he shared with me when he was in the hospital, diagnosed with cancer, and my character Ajit just not knowing what to do with him, being an adult and being told all these things about your family that you just never really understood. But I took liberty with the stories, and my Dad was in consultation the entire time and gave me permission to fictionalize parts of it. The story is true to what I wanted it to be, but also to honour his story, his legacy. So it definitely started off autobiographical in a sense, but shifted to be inspired by, rather than just staying married to the narrative as it was present because memories are complicated. I learned that throughout this process, because people sometimes have different memories.”

About the play title, why is it called that? What’s courageous about the story?

“I think that entire generation of folks who immigrated from Punjab in the ‘70s and the ‘80s and the community that they grew up in, the community that they built, I think that in itself is a courageous act. The title of the show came last. I was grappling with that for a long time, and it was actually my Mom who offered it to me. She said that even the act of doing this show and showing the characters as they are, flaws and all, is courageous. Like, in Punjabi communities, we don’t talk about addiction, we don’t talk about alcoholism, the hard stuff that our communities grapple with behind closed doors, and this show tackles that, pretty head-on. My Dad is a very resilient man who had to overcome things as a labourer, his generation, so he definitely has a lot of resilience and courage just built in.”

The play isn’t new, so what happens in rehearsals at this point? Are new actors involved?

“We haven’t done it in two full years so thankfully, it’s the entire original cast, so right now it’s mostly trying to get the show back into our body and get deeper as well, because it’s quite a privilege and a gift to be able to do a show a second time. You can make discoveries that you just didn’t have the time and space for the first time around, especially when it’s a new work. Time goes by so quickly when you’re putting up a show, so it feels really nice to do it again and to get deeper.”

Do you hope to take this on tour one day?

“With Theatre Conspiracy, where I’m co-artistic director, this is one of our shows that we’re excited about, and if it has another life, that’s always wonderful, but there’s no concrete touring plans as of now.… With the company we have an upcoming piece called ‘Swim’ that we’re currently in development. It’s piece inspired by a Syrian refugee that swam eight kilometres from Turkey to a Greek island to seek refuge. It’s an immersive audio experience, which is our bread and butter with Theatre Conspiracy, making immersive experiences that make people think and feel things that maybe they normally wouldn’t. I also freelance, and I’m working with Neworld Theatre on a piece called ‘Climate Disaster Project’ and a few other things in the pipeline.”

Presented by Surrey Civic Theatres, “Himmit” is staged April 18-20 at Surrey Arts Centre’s Studio Theatre, 13750 88 Ave. Directed by Paneet Singh. For show times and tickets ($29–$39), visit Audience advisory: coarse language and mature themes including substance abuse and racism. Minor strobe effects. Recommended age: 12+.

Tom Zillich

About the Author: Tom Zillich

I cover entertainment, sports and news stories for the Surrey Now-Leader, where I've worked for more than half of my 30-plus years in the newspaper business.
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