Theatre, not just for Asians

Far from worthy, the Propeller festival is a showcase for exciting new plays.

Before I attended the Propeller festival of Asian theatre on Monday night, I had thought that a showcase for specifically Asian talent would be dated and retrogressive.

Post-East is East, post-Bombay Dreams, post-Slumdog Millionaire, I felt we were a bit beyond this potentially patronising sort of "platform". The planned mothballing of the BBC's Asian Network feels like the final boot for a state-sponsored British Asian cultural movement and I half-agreed with commentators l Catherine Bennett who welcome its demise as healthy sign of the times.

Also unlike Asian music, film and dance, most audiences wouldn't claim Asian theatre as a distinct artistic genre or, I suspect, care if a play is brought to them by Asian directors, set-designers, and writers.

However, two days and four plays later, I now want to see Propeller staged at the National Theatre next year. Here, I have seen more fresh, exciting drama about modern Britain that truthfully reflects my experience of it than in my entire adult theatre-going life. And these performances are just works in progress.

Since my first-generation Pakistani immigrant parents first introduced me to theatre, at the National 25 years ago, I've been hoping to see something of their and my world reflected on its stages with the same quality of the Molière play we first attended. But the more Asian themed work I've seen at the National over the years, the less I've wanted to see any Asian theatre anywhere.

In fact, in the last year I've attended three performances there which portrayed British Asian or Muslim identity: The Black Album, Waiting and England People Very Nice. Although well-intentioned, Waiting, a verbatim play about the women left behind when their husbands were interned under terror laws was not really drama at all but performed journalism. Despite its intention to give voice to the voiceless, it was an outsider's version of Muslim womanhood seen through the prism of headlines, which ended up reinforcing the idea of us as victims.

The Black Album, again about terrorism (I spot a theme), was embarrassingly dull. And England People... succeeded because it was honest about its shallow treatment of characters of all races. The National seems institutionally incapable of staging a high quality production with three-dimensional contemporary Asian characters. The success of Tamasha, the theatre company behind Propeller, in doing just that would suggest that the problem is a lack of awareness among people who commission and produce plays, rather than those who write them.

In the Propeller plays (Snookered, Lotus Beauty, Blood and Zindabad) the characters, storylines and dialogue ring true. True - not self-consciously authentic, and not crowded out by a sea of issues. Snookered is about four young men meet up in a snooker hall on evening on the birthday of their dead friend Talub. Its writer, Ishy Din, has a sharp ear for quick-fire, blokey, put-downs which are delivered throughout with perfect timing by a remarkably assured cast. But the irresistibly silly schoolboy banter is woven into much darker deeper probings into fragile masculinity reminiscent of Glengarry Glen Ross.

When one character is accused of being a "fundo" because he's not drinking alcohol I fear the obligatory airing of the "Jihadi generation" issue but it never comes, at least not in an explicit way. Difficult themes like religion, drug addiction, misogyny, poverty and racism do feature but Snookeredis first and foremost a subtle, complex, entertaining and truthful play about the inner lives of young British men who happen to be Muslims.

On the face of it, Propeller is the result of a rough and ready 3 weeks in workshops and rehearsal rooms in a church hall in Pimlico. In fact Tamasha first commissioned writers Ishy Din, Satinder Chohan, Avaes Mohammad and Em Hussain years ago as part of an ongoing quest to find and develop new writers. Din, who works as a taxi driver in Middlesbrough, told me the prolonged support was crucial for him because he doesn't move in the rarefied London-based theatre world. Chohan spent two months working in a Hounslow beauty salon to research Lotus Beauty, which is set in one.

Come to think of it, this is exactly how East is East came about - it was Tamasha that first "found" the script for East is East and developed it as a play. It's the same painstaking route that produces good theatre everywhere - Asian or not.

Propeller is on until Saturday 27 March at The Gate theatre, London

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Why hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.