Dramas on British Muslim life grab theater audiences
by Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 9 November 2009
The play “What Fatima Did...”, which ended its two-week premier run at the Hampstead theater in North London last Saturday, is the latest example of a British Muslim-related play to have gained favorable attention from critics and theater goers alike.
The author of the play, 21-year-old Atiha Sen Gupta, is the youngest playwright ever to have had a work staged in Hampstead theater’s main auditorium. Her play deals with the fallout of the decision of a British Muslim, on the eve of her 18th birthday, to start wearing the hijab. Up to then, Fatima had behaved like a typical British girl of her age – drinking, smoking, and partying – and had a white Irish boyfriend, George (Gethin Anthony). But after donning the hijab she turns her back on her former way of life.
Atiha Sen Gupta is not herself a Muslim, but as a young Asian Briton growing up a multicultural environment she is close to Muslim issues. She is the daughter of a Sri Lankan father, and an Indian-born mother, Rahil Gupta, who is a writer and an activist with Southall Black Sisters.
The play, directed by Kelly Wilkinson, is set in and around Fatima’s multicultural secondary school. The performances are full of vitality and humor, and the engaging characters include Fatima’s classmate Craig, played by Simon Coombs [pictured top with Farzaba Dua Elahi, credit Alex Rumford].
Fatima’s twin brother Mohammed (Arsher Ali) tries to defend her against the reactions to her decision to take the veil. Her mother, played by Shobu Kapoor, who had fought with her ex-husband for the right to wear Western dress, is angry with Fatima. George finds it near-impossible to come to terms with Fatima’s decision, and her feisty best friend Aisha (Farzana Dua Elahi) is also perplexed. But others, including her teacher, defend Fatima’s right to have made what she considers the right choice.
“What Fatima Did...” received generally high praise from the critics. Charles Spencer of the Telegraph, for instance, found it “entertaining, thought-provoking and topical, giving a vivid impression of what it is like to be young and growing up in multicultural Britain.”
Fatima herself never appears on stage. This in a way reflects the reality that the veil is frequently talked about by British commentators, but much less is heard publicly from the women who wear the hijab themselves. Cabinet Minister Jack Straw started the debate on the veil when in October 2006 he said he had been asking women wearing the niqab to remove it when they came to consult him, as he felt it impeded communication.
Straw’s comments paved the way for a tougher and more confrontational government attitude towards the Muslim community, partly because of anxieties that there would be further terror attacks following the suicide attacks of the July 7, 2005 attacks on the London transport system.
This has been a fruitful year for Muslim-related theater in London. It got off to a memorable start in February with the staging by the Royal Court theater of Alia Bano’s “Shades” as part of the theater’s Young Writers’ Festival. The Royal Court is encouraging writing by young Muslims through its annual 11-week playwriting course ‘Unheard Voices’. The 26-year-old Bano took part in the first ‘Unheard Voices’, in 2008.
The central character of “Shades”, Sabrina (Stephanie Street), is a British Muslim eager to find a good husband. She goes to a Muslim speed-dating evening and gets to know two potential marriage partners: charming but flashy Ali (Elyes Gabel) and the more religious and traditional Reza (Amit Shah). Her flatmate Zain (Navin Chowdhry) provides her with pithy comments and advice. Matt Wolf of the New York Times wrote of “Shades” that his excitement in finding fine new writing was “matched by my delight in an ensemble packed with talent but, as yet, no well-known names.”
The most high profile work by a writer of Muslim background to be staged so far this year has been “The Black Album” by the acclaimed Pakistani-British writer Hanif Kureishi. “The Black Album”, Kureishi’s second novel, was published in 1995 and is set in 1988/89, in a period marked by furor over Salman Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses”.
To mark the 20th anniversary of the issuing of Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death, Kureishi transformed the novel into a play which was staged at the Cottesloe theater, part of the National theater in London’s South Bank complex, in July-October. Following its London run the play embarked on a tour of English cities, which ends with a run at the Oxford Playhouse from Nov. 10-14. “The Black Album” is a joint production of the pioneering cross-cultural theater company Tara Arts and the National theater, and is directed by Tara’s artistic director and co-founder Jatinder Verma.
Shahid (Jonathan Bonnici) is a young student newly arrived in London from a provincial town. He is torn between a group of brotherly Muslim students, led by the charismatic activist Riaz (Alexander Andreou), and his attractive hedonistic lecturer Deedee Osgood (Tanya Franks).
The play is energetic, funny, and delivered at a fast pace, but there was some disappointment that it failed to transfer the full richness of the novel to the stage. Although the play generally sticks closely to the novel, there is an allusion to the 7/7 attacks.
In the novel, impressionable hothead Hat is fatally injured while trying to firebomb a bookshop. In the play he picks up a rucksack (similar to those used by the 7/7 suicide bombers) and the play ends with a massive explosion.
Theatrical activity around Muslim themes is taking place not only in mainstream venues, but also at a community level. After 7/7, the government was keen to increase community cohesion as a way of fighting extremism, and saw grassroots theater as having a role in this. It has funded some theater projects through the Community Leadership Fund (CLF) of its Preventing Violent Extremism program.
One beneficiary of CLF funding has been the Khayaal theater Company founded in 1997 by the black American Muslim writer and director Luqman Ali. Khayaal has received CLF funding of nearly 130,000 pounds Sterling to deliver 200 to 250 performances of two plays – “Hearts and Minds” and “Sun and Wind” – in schools across the UK over three years. Both plays address issues of radicalization and extremism at family and community level.
GW Theatre Company’s play “One Extreme to the Other” tackles both right-wing and Islamist extremism. A Muslim youth, Ali, has become entangled with an Islamist extremist, while his former friend Tony is flirting with the racist far right.
The play is primarily aimed at youth audiences aged from 14-25. GW Theatre received a grant of 95,000 pounds to deliver a national tour of the play, around 110 performances over three years, in schools, colleges, youth clubs, community venues and arts centers.