Stay Woke – A South Asian voice in the heart of Darlinghurst

Reviewed By Vaanie Krishnan

Stay Woke – 27th March 2022 – Previews 3/5 stars

On Sunday 27th March at 6:30pm I had the privilege to do what many married 30 year old’s do these days, drag my husband to a play. Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s progressive 2022 program had blown me away once already with 7 Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner, leaving me with high hopes for Stay Woke, the second play by Melbourne-born playwright Aran Thangaratnam.

Walking into the Eternity Playhouse, I was met with the familiar scents of cinnamon, clove and cumin. An ode to South Asian culture rarely found in the walls of traditional theatre. For many second-generation South Asians, that spent their primary and high school years running from their native smells to fit in, this felt triumphant. A true example of what can happen when you create space for the specificity of culture, one that does not group all people of colour together.

This ode to South Asian culture and Tamil heritage, however, was disappointedly lacking from the stage. Stay Woke, directed by Bridget Balodis, takes place in the present day and centres on Sri Lankan brothers Niv, 30, played by Dushan Phillips, and 25 year old Sai, played by Kaivu Suvarna. Thangaratnam centres the play around a typical weekend away in your 20s, a metaphor for the two years we have spent locked inside with each other, forced to interact with our families in ways we haven’t before.

Brilliantly funny in sections, borderline dark in others, Stay Woke plays with all the tropes you imagined it would. An ignorant white girl, a self-centred younger brother, and… dare I say it, an angry brown man. The script is dynamic and fast paced, even in the awkward silences, and does not shy away from boldly telling it like it is. Rose Adams and Brooke Lee carry the humour of the show, both in the physical comedy and comedic timing. Brooke in particular shines in a few sections where they explore their ethnic and queer experience.

The direction, set and lighting are simple and effective, although could benefit from a little less yelling. The team does a good job of seamlessly piecing together the movement of time so that it is clear but allows the play to maintain momentum. There is one section involving a spotlight where Dushan Phillips breaks the third wall which is brilliant.

I imagine for white audiences; the play brings to the surface many of the things’ people of colour were thinking but never said. Unfortunately, it does this without ever actually teasing out the issues that lie underneath. While I was comforted by the knowing “hmms” and nods of my predominantly white friends in the audience, the play itself did not sit in the discomfort long enough to allow for a constructive conversation about intersectionality and race. Instead, it leaves the audience with more questions than answers – How do we engage with those that are ignorant? Is it our role to do so? How do we do so without being triggered?

Perhaps this is Thangaratnam’s message. That this conversation is ongoing and none of us will survive in the extremes. Perhaps this reflects where we are as a society, still in the binary, still trying to create space for new voices at the table or maybe we have evolved since 2020 and this play stands as a snapshot of where we were then.

Regardless, there is no doubt that Thangaratnam, his team and the Darlinghurst Theatre Company are paving the way forward for voices of colour and I am here for it. It is not fair to expect one Sri Lankan playwright to be the voice of all of us, to show all the nuance of our culture, experiences, challenges and triumphs. And yet we do, because we only get one chance, one play. So, let’s make sure we support it, so that there can be more than just one. So that we might take up space in the colonial walls of art and history with our scents and smells.

Stay Woke runs from 29th March to 17th April at the Eternity Playhouse, Darlinghurst.

Buy tickets here.

Darlinghurst Theatre Company have reserved eight tickets for each performance for those who face social barriers to attending theatre, especially those who identify as Indigenous and/or Black and/or People of Colour, those who identify as transgender and gender diverse, those experiencing disability or those experiencing economic hardship. To access these tickets, please contact

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