Standing ovation in London for "Flowers will always bloom"

drama.jpg (16704 bytes)From Sujeeva Nivunhella in London
"My father died in a bomb blast and we became refugees. We hated the Sinhalese until Sunethra madam gave us this chance. Now I have both Sinhala and Muslim friends. Earlier, we blamed the Sinhalese army for everything that happened to us. Today I blame both sides."

Thangeshwari is one of the players in "Flowers will always bloom," a Sunera Foundation production that is now playing in London. Most of the 45 actors and actresses in this powerful drama are disabled. Some are refugees. For most of them, their flight to London was the first time in an airplane.

The group, which included four professional artistes, arrived in London two weeks ago and billeted at a hotel in Hammersmith. They quickly adapted to unfamiliar surroundings.

Thangeshwari said she was living in the Thirukkovil refugee camp when she was discovered" by the Sunera Foundation of Ms. Bandaranaike and trained as an actress. She is grateful to Ms. Bandaranaike and the foundation for giving her undreamed of opportunities that had enabled her to meet people of other communities.

One of the curses of Sri Lanka’s separatist war that has now dragged on for nearly 20 years is that Tamil children born after 1983 do not know that the three communities inhabiting in our island home - Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslims - are living in amity outside the war zone.

Upul Samantilleke, also an actor in the drama, was a soldier in the Sri Lanka Army who lost both his legs in the north. Asked how he felt acting in this play with Tamil refugees, he had this to say: "I joined the army to do a job and that was to safeguard my country. Here we live together like one family and we do not have any differences."

Liz Philipson, who is coordinating the performances in the UK, got all members of the company down to the hotel lobby and told them how to use the hot and cold water taps in their hotel bathrooms, how to use the elevator, what they should do in case of a fire and lots of other useful details necessary for people unfamiliar with the accommodation in a London hotel.

They were also given body lotions and lip balm to protect themselves from the cold.

It’s not all work and no play for these 45 visitors to London. They have been already to the Lego Land theme park and enjoyed their day out despite light rain and a temperature of 13 degrees centigrade.

The group attracted a packed audience to their first performance at Riverside Studios and the general verdict was "unbelievable." About 90% of those who attended were British and all those who saw the superb performance completely forgot that the majority of the players are disabled. There was a 5-minute standing ovation at the end of the show.

Ms. Sunethra Bandaranaike talking to this correspondent said that the Sunera Foundation was launched about two years ago with a vision to unite all the people of Sri Lanka. Her wish is to see all communities in Sri Lanka living in harmony.

"For the last 18 years there has been no political solution to the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka. I think a great deal can be done through art to help bring about peace in our homeland," she said.

"We should not leave aside the disabled. We should share things with them. It was a good idea to include refugees into this group. By doing that I think we started some sort of a healing process and they stopped looking at you suspiciously."

She said that the British government had funded the foundation to train 30 more people and they will recruit players from all parts of the country - north to south, west to east. The current production was all about war and they plan a new production with a new theme next December.

"We are always talking about ‘the burning issue.’ If we can contribute to improve conditions in the country even in a small way, we would be very happy," she said.

The co-director of the production, Wolfgang Stange of the AMICI Dance Theatre Company of London first visited Sri Lanka in 1974 when he was invited to see children of the Cheshire Home in Negombo perform. He saw some disabled children watching the play but not taking part and that day he thought to himself "I must find a way of bringing such kids into the performing arts."

Stange felt that the plight of the refugees in Sri Lanka had not been discussed properly and with the help of Sunethra Bandaranaike managed to get some real refugees into "Flowers will always bloom."

He said it was his dream to bring the production to London. "I wanted to share my experience with my people here and it was possible to do so to celebrate the 21st anniversary of the Integrated Theatre in London."

"This was a tremendous new experience for everybody concerned. How quickly they adapted was miraculous. The majority of the players had never ever been to Colombo," he said.

Rohana Deva Perera, the other co-director, said that he had always wanted to do something for the under-privileged and that brought him into this project. He would like to thank his actress wife, Ramani Damayanthi, for giving the fullest support to his endeavour.

Perera said that the players included refugees from the Thirukkovil camp and disabled soldiers from Rana Viru Sevana, Ragama. "When we brought this production to London we had some reservations of how audiences would react. I never expected a standing ovation and was overwhelmed," he said.

Perera also said there were people who wrongly accused them of using NGO funds for this project. "I admit that some NGOs act only for their well being. But don’t forget, art did not survive in the world without the help of donors."