The One Who Loves You So, writer and director Arun Welandawe-Prematilleke’s widely-anticipated original play, ran at Colombo’s Namel Malini Punchi theater in August. The play is a complex depiction of a short-lived relationship between two men, one “a wealthy Colombo trust-fund baby” and the other a British expatriate. Their relationship starts with an ordinary match on a dating app, and what follows is a probe into ideas of attraction, sexuality, class, loneliness, and love in Sri Lanka.
Almost everyone who I spoke to about The One Who Loves You So shared with me the same reaction: “I was thinking about it for days.” Its power and voice lingered — the dialogue so charged with meaning, so cleverly constructed to toe the line between social criticism and the playful language of attraction. The scenes that explicitly display sex between two men, in a country where homosexuality remains a crime, felt as subversive as they felt real. I sat down with Welandawe-Prematilleke to ask him about crafting a play that felt at once intensely specific and broadly relatable.
As soon as he walked into a small Colombo coffee shop to meet me, Welandawe-Prematilleke ran into a familiar face. It’s easy to be recognized as a regular in a city that feels so small. It’s Colombo’s smallness that makes Welandawe-Prematilleke’s play all the more emotionally striking. The setting of the play itself in Colombo. The local nature of its scenes feel like they serve the same purpose as a call-out of a family-member’s outdated political views — that mix of outrage and tenderness.
It didn’t take long to get into the sources of Welandawe-Prematilleke’s inspiration. He started out as an actor, concentrating on devised theater at Goldsmiths College in London, and transitioned to writing and directing during his time with the Mind Adventures Theatre Company after returning home to Colombo. His previous original works have largely been experimental and audience-driven. The One Who Loves You So departed from the previous trend, taking on a more traditional form. For this departure, Welandawe-Prematilleke points to the origin of the play.
“I’ve always believed that the idea begets the form…once I realized it was going to be about me in some way, that it’s based in truth, then it became clear that it has to be looking inward, that you have to kind of sit down and write it,” he said.
Welandawe-Prematilleke doesn’t shy away from the fact that the play is based in his own life. In his writer/director’s note, he writes: “I embarked on this project, knowing only that I wanted to speak honestly about my experience of being a gay man in Colombo…As the writing progressed, the skeleton of a story began to emerge and it became clear that I would for the first time put myself in the centre of a narrative.”
And yet, he decided against acting in it, not wanting associations to be drawn too clearly to him and his life.
“I didn’t want people to definitely think that I’m one of them as opposed to the other…the truth is a bit muddier than that,” he wrote.
The local nature of its scenes feel like they serve the same purpose as a call-out of a family-member’s outdated political views — that mix of outrage and tenderness.
When questioned about the political nature of the play, Welandawe-Prematilleke is careful to clarify his intentions. He acknowledges the inherent politics in being openly gay in a country where it is illegal to be so, but struggles with the idea of The One Who Loves You So becoming what he calls “an issues show.” Despite moments of subtle commentary — the men discuss wealth and privilege, access to health services, and public displays of affection between homosexual couples in Colombo, among other politicized issues — Welandawe-Prematilleke insists on the authenticity of these exchanges, the inseparability of these topics from the everyday lives of these two men.
“I think what I was really trying to do was see whether you could show two interesting, intelligent people spend time and have an attraction in their conversation, and that language was the way in which these two people were falling for each other, those [issues] just happened to be what they would talk about,” Welandawe-Prematilleke said. Primarily, he believes in the power of the personal. “The most powerful thing for me is having queer people of every color come in and talk about the power of seeing their story presented to themselves when they’ve never had that.”
Welandawe-Prematilleke does point to inspirations within the queer canon. Most notably, he drew from James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, and even gave it a nod when one of the characters quotes the novel in an exchange about about men who sleep with women. “I’ve heard about boys who do that,” the character quips, “nasty little beasts.” Welandawe-Prematilleke was drawn not just to the direct parallels like the intimacy of the room and the open queer narrative, but to Baldwin’s broader ability to adapt fiction from life.
Welandawe-Prematilleke continues to write. His next work focuses on family relationships and potentially commenting on the growing Chinese influence in Sri Lanka. He also is looking to take The One Who Loves You So to more audiences, working on a Sinhala translation while considering other possible audiences where the play’s local nature would strike the right chord.
Since the closing of Colombo’s The One Who Loves You So, Welandawe-Prematilleke has grounded himself in the beginning of this process: “[I remember] that space I was in at the start—that discomfort—and how difficult it was to put those things on paper and be honest, but as long as you continuously do that, then everything will be fine. Everything will fall into place.”