Theatre Conspiracy’s new play, Himmat, originated in Surrey Memorial Hospital, of all places.
It was there that the theatre company’s then–artist-in-residence, Gavan Cheema, would spend many hours visiting her father, who was going through cancer treatment. Her dad was a workhorse throughout his life, labouring at different times in lumber mills, as a roofer, and as a truck driver.
“I was taken to the hospital and spending the most amount of time I’ve ever spent with him in my life,” Cheema recalls in a phone interview with the Straight. “Then he started telling me all these stories that I had never heard of.”
Her dad was born in the village of Cheema in Punjab’s Jalandhar district, half a world away from where Cheema was born and raised in Surrey. She was curious to unpack this family history, so she would run these tales by her mom and her siblings. Much to her surprise, their versions often differed from that of her dad.
“That was where Himmat came from,” Cheema says. “I had all these stories. I didn’t know what to do with them.”
She consulted with playwright Tim Carlson, who turned out to be the dramaturge on Himmat, to seek his advice. Then she started piecing the stories together.
“There were a lot of turbulent times, but there was also a lot of joy,” Cheema says.
Her dad had certainly experienced trauma—to his body from a life of blue-collar work but also to his spirit through the pain of immigration.
“Through that, I started to pull threads of how that affects relationships, how that affects addiction, and all these things,” she adds. “I started to get into some things that were a little bit deeper.”
A major breakthrough came when she gave herself permission to take apart these stories and reassemble them in a way that made sense to her. That meant adding some of her own truths, taking liberties with what she had heard, and, in some cases, simply making up aspects to improve the narrative.
“There are some things in the show that are totally fictional,” Cheema admits.
The result is a deeply emotional and honest tale of a working-class father’s struggle with addiction and how his relationship changes over time with his daughter, Ajit. The father, Banth, is played by veteran actor Munish Sharma. And Cheema decided to take on the role of Ajit.
Cheema has been a producer, director, and dramaturge; she has also acted since she was five. But it took several years for her to feel that Himmat was ready to be made into a full-length play. And this marks her first professional acting role.
“At the core, it’s about relationships; it’s about redemption,” Cheema says. “It’s about unpacking a family’s history. Through that, you feel their pain. You see their secrets. You see their love. You see their joy.
“It’s also a piece about healing—physically as well as spiritually,” she adds. “I think that’s really important.”
Himmat is not linear. Cheema explains that there’s a strong tradition of oral storytelling in Punjabi culture. And this play reflects that with humour and a great deal of heart at its core.
She felt that Paneet Singh was the ideal person to direct this story. He’s a local playwright, filmmaker, and director whose work is centred around storytelling rooted in the community that he loves and grew up in.
Singh also likes to provoke and challenge that community with his work.
Singh tells the Straight by phone that Cheema took a “really courageous step” in deciding to perform as a character similar to herself while trusting a collaborative team with leadership of the production on something so personal.
“I have written things and handed them off to folks to kind of lead creatively—to other directors, to other production teams,” Singh says. “But to be honest, I’ve never written a script and handed it off to someone else and stayed involved in the production in a really robust manner. I imagine it takes a lot of understanding. It takes a lot of collaborative savvy, and it takes a real sensitivity and sensibility to do it.”
He points out that this is one family’s story—not everybody’s story.
“It’s not about alcoholism and addiction,” Singh emphasizes. “Gavan’s story is about…connecting a father and daughter against the backdrop of a situation caused by addiction. It’s a really beautiful human story. It’s told in a way that’s culturally resonant for folks who are coming from the South Asian community.”
Characters switch between Punjabi and English, but projections make it easier for the audience to follow. The play is also set in different times and locations.
To Cheema, the best way to combat stereotypes about her community is to show people their truths, with the goal of creating greater empathy.
She also insists that although Punjabi immigrants experienced a great deal of hardship, there is so much more than that to the community.
“We’re not defined by our trauma,” Cheema says. “We’re not defined by our pain. Our people are really resilient. There’s still a lot of love and a lot of service to the community at the core.”