Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
There’s nothing funny about death. Or is there?
Shohana Sharmin would like to think so. Six months after her mother’s death, she recalls opening a blank Word document and typing, “How do I make this funny?”
It’s now two years later, and she hasn’t had to try. Sharmin was 27 years old when she lost her mother to lung cancer in 2017. Afterwards, she found common ground with fellow comedians and cast members who had also lost their parents. The result is a new – and dark – sketch comedy revue: Dead Parents Society, which centres on love, loss and mortality. The show is written and performed by comedians united by their grief at losing a parent at a young age. It is born of their common experience of navigating grief and using humour to deal with loss.
In addition to Sharmin, the cast features Anne McMaster, Carolyne Das, Jacqueline Twomey, and King Chiu, and they are performing under the direction of 2019 Canadian Comedy Award winner Kirsten Rasmussen. The show premieres this weekend at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. It turns out that in these skilled and experienced hands, the aftermath of death can eventually be transformed from the darkness of despair into something funny . . . and even hopeful. And in the process, the complexity of grief can also bond relationships, promote healing and yield fresh perspective.
Despite the busyness of final rehearsals for the show’s premiere, Sharmin took some time to chat with SesayArts about the developmental journey of Dead Parents Society, the implications of unpacking grief in socially designated spaces, and finding humour in the universal connection of mortality.
SesayArts: I realize that you are a trained comedian. Even so, how did you mine humour from a loss so huge?
SS: After my mother passed away, my therapist told me to write down everything I was thinking and feeling to help understand my own grief. But the thought of taking my painfully vivid memories of my mother—of how she looked and how she talked and how her skin smelled and how she took up space in my world—trying to capture all of that on a flat, white piece of paper seemed impossible. When I did try to write, especially on important milestones like her birthday or my parents’ wedding anniversary, what poured out was just pain. This did not make for good comedy. It took about a year before I even attempted to write something funny about my grief.
The first time I remember having a funny feeling about grief was a few days after my mom passed. My sister-in-law and I went to the mall to pick up a few things for our trip to Bangladesh, where we would bury my mother’s body. The experience of being bombarded by club music at H&M 72 hours after seeing my mom take her last breath was surreal. At one point, I walked by a store where a woman was trying to get her out-of-control son to stop running around. I stared at the little boy and suddenly felt a surge of anger. Every muscle in my body wanted to pick him up and shake him and yell, “How dare you, you selfish little monster! Why do you get to keep your mom, but mine has to die?!” After a few seconds, I realized I was shooting daggers at a kid because I was jealous he had a mom. In that moment, I couldn’t help but laugh. Grief makes us crazy in ways you can’t imagine, and to me those are the best (and often funniest) moments.
SesayArts: What would you like audiences to know about what this show has in store? And who should see it, in your opinion?
SS: I hope that audiences watching the show can see themselves on stage. Whether you have a deceased parent or an absent parent or just plain boring loving, alive parents (lucky you), or you know someone who has lost a loved one – I hope you can recognize that although Dead Parents Society is our story, it’s your story, too. Grief connects us to the most basic truth about our common humanity: everyone you know has lost a loved one at some point in their lifetime.
So why don’t we talk about death outside of hospitals or funerals or therapy? Why have we marked these designated spaces to unpack our grief in hushed tones? More importantly, what do we do with a person who cannot contain their grief to these designated spaces, who walks around looking and feeling like a wet band aid?
Throughout my grieving process, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the peculiar ways in which we as a society deal with death and dying. When I asked my fellow cast mates, they all said the same thing – no one knows what the hell to say to a sad person. If I had a dime for every time someone told me, “Time heals all wounds,” I’d be on a yacht right now. They say tragedy plus time equals comedy. Our experience of navigating grief in a society that teaches us to put our sadness away into tiny little drawers taught us that the aftermath of tragedy is comedy.
Dead Parents Society is not an attempt to make light of death. Our goal is to honour and find humour in all parts of human mortality – the parts that we’re comfortable with and the parts that we can learn to get better at. I hope that our audiences walk away feeling a little less awkward about dealing with grief.
SesayArts: Speak to us a little about the developmental process? What did it take to get it from the kernel of an idea to the fully-formed show that we will see this weekend?
SS: The developmental process for this show has felt like one long group therapy session, in the best possible way. When we had our first official kick-off meeting, I was blown away by the openness and vulnerability at the table – we all shared our stories and there was an instant connection as a group. Grief is isolating, and to be able to openly share the stories of our grief felt like a breath of fresh air. Throughout this writing process, we laughed and we cried. Our director Kirsten Rasmussen took our stories, our laughter, and our tears and mined them to find levity in the darkest places. What you will see this weekend is exactly that – the aftermath of tragedies, told from a place of joy through the art of sketch comedy.
SesayArts: What has surprised you most in your work on Dead Parents Society?
SS: What surprised me most through the process of this show is learning that I am a big baby (and that’s okay). After my mom died, I dove into my grief headfirst and lived like nothing in the world mattered except my sadness. In retrospect, I realize that while I was in a daze, crying my heart out, my brother was figuring out the paperwork for death – an enormous responsibility that didn’t even cross my mind at the time.
Two years later, at a rehearsal for this show, Kirsten asked how we took my mother’s body back to Bangladesh for burial, and I knew next to nothing about the process. My brother got on a plane and did what needed to be done to take her across the ocean. I can’t imagine what those 24-hours of travel must have felt like, and I can never give him enough credit for it.
I’ve learned through this show that in spite of it all, I am actually one of the lucky ones. I got to stand next to my mom when she took her last breath. I was held tightly by my best friends at the funeral. I had a sister-in-law who was ready to listen to my one hundredth “mom used to” anecdote of the day.
In the end, I’ve learned to be thankful for everyone who babied this big baby through it all.
News You Can Use
What: Dead Parents Society, written and performed by Shohana Sharmin, Anne McMaster, Carolyne Das, Jacqueline Twomey, and King Chiu │Directed by Kirsten Rasmussen
When: November 1 – 2, 2019, 8 pm
Where: Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Cabaret Space, 12 Alexander Street, Toronto, ON
Info and Tickets: buddiesinbadtimes.com
© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine, 2019