Decolonising Theatre: A Playwright’s Perspective
Raman Mundair discusses the urgent need for theatre to change in its post-Covid reconstruction and why representation matters now more than ever
I recently watched a YouTube video of the LA riots that took place as a consequence of the violent, racist policing of the innocent Rodney King. Faintly audible on the video was the rallying cry of ‘Burn Hollywood Burn!’ There was a righteousness in the voice that was undeniable. There was no doubt a need for something to be turned to ashes in order for a renewal to begin. A making of space, a clearing of the decks. With the murder of George Floyd, Sheku Bayou, Christopher Alder, Sean Rigg, Zahid Mubarak and the recent shooting of Jacob Blake we all know how far we are from justice for Black people and how much work there is still to be done. Part of this work is regarding representation so that we can understand and empathise with lived experiences other than our own: working together towards social justice must include representation on all levels including whose voices and stories we feature in our national, cultural narratives and especially the arts, literature, film and theatre.
I love theatre. I am passionate about it. As a working-class primary school aged child I was first shown an insight into the performing arts by free theatre outings arranged for under-privileged, and neglected children in Manchester by the Variety Club of Great Britain. My teachers recognised that I matched that description and I vividly remember my first outing to the theatre. I had a seat in the gods and had dressed up thinking, that’s what you do when you go to the theatre. I remember being distraught that I didn’t have elbow length black gloves and a lace hanky and a stole. I think I may have been heavily influenced by all the Ealing comedies and Powell and Pressburger black and white films I had avidly consumed. I made up for my lack by insisting that I wear my winter mittens and my best chintzy shalwar kameez and draped an elaborate chunni around my shoulders with pointed intention – the ensemble seemed to do justice to the grand occasion of ‘going to the theatre.’
This may seem strange to some but when I heard the valid distress of the theatre world voiced by white representatives who pointed out the very real nearing conclusion that the whole theatre industry was near collapse post-pandemic, I thought of that phrase ‘Burn Hollywood Burn!’
Know this: I love theatre. I support theatre. I am a playwright – I create for theatre. But currently theatre doesn’t love me. I am a working-class, woman of colour, queer and disabled playwright. I am a woman who doesn’t read in an easy, convenient way – slipping into the grooves left by lazy tropes. I am a woman who is multitudes and not conveniently pigeon-holed as an oppressed Asian woman rising or Asian woman exotic or the formidable high caste Asian woman flexing her intellect.
In the alphabet of theatre ‘P’ stands as much for privilege as it does performance. There is an unbroken chain of privileged whiteness in play from literary managers to directors to producers to lighting technicians. It is undeniable that cis white men inhabit all stratas of the theatre space with ease with white middle class women in their wake.
The world of theatre and the arts in general wants Black and brown urban and folk performance, art and fashion. This world greedily consumes all genres of our music, fashion and food. All this abundance is viewed as a commodity; it is allowed to pass through the visible and invisible borders, but our brown and Black bodies aren’t. Non-white playwrights and directors who are lucky to be ‘let in’ by white tastemakers are then forever stuck in ‘development hell’ with projects or stuck in mid-career mode. This has been true of my experience within Scottish and British theatre.
I recently engaged in a Playwrights Studio Scotland webinar where I discussed at length with Valerie Turner, a theatre actor and director from Vancouver, Canada, who identifies as Asian Canadian, on the Climate of Underrepresented Voices in theatre. We lingered over the dangers of telling a ‘single story’ which is indeed the default in the realm of theatre. The framing of narratives is always set to whiteness. Whiteness can have subtlety. Whiteness can be queer and working-class and multi-faceted. Whiteness can inhabit multiple identities. The same possibility is not given to brown and Black narratives.
The level of research and development afforded to such stories is poor in comparison to their white counterparts. This is significant on many levels including the fact that the documentation and bodies of knowledge around Black and brown experiences are still wholly underrepresented and that in fact presents challenges in making work that truly reflects our lived experiences as we ourselves are living archives and pioneers as brown and Black theatremakers.
But still reviewers complain – something is off, something is naive, something not quite right: that essentially the work of new and emerging brown and Black playwrights and directors does not measure up to their white peers. I faced these very same issues in my brief moment ‘in the limelight’. The reviews of my plays The Algebra of Freedom (a play inspired by the state-sanctioned murder of Jean Charles de Menezes) and Side Effects (a juxtapostion of a gallus Glasgow night out with, date rape and Abu Ghraib), both featured strong strains of shaming: the subtext was clear – who do you think you are ‘Miss British Asian’ thinking you could write a play and own a stage? How very dare you! In both cases the reviews didn’t damage the bums on seats ratio – my plays were well attended – there is an audience for my work. But the gatekeepers, the commissioners, the movers and shakers who live for critical acclaim are heavily influenced by reviewers. It matters to them. It is an integral part of the ego of theatre. If like me you are a playwright of colour and have received mediocre reviews (not even bad, just average – 3 stars as opposed 4 or 5) you may find yourself, uncommissioned, unable to get a meeting and not taken seriously.
My experience of the reviewing process is that I am being shamed into silence. The latent accusation being ‘Who am I to think I could imagine other worlds? That I could take up space and the stage and write for the temple that is British and Scottish Theatre?’ Another issue is the fact that like the cultural gatekeeper literary managers and directors, the reviewers are nearly always white with little or no knowledge of the cultural context of the work, the inter-textuality at play and the nuanced cultural sensitivities. The default is: if I, as a white, privileged, middle class+ person doesn’t ‘get’ or like your play, well of course why would anyone else find value in it, understand, be engaged or entertained by it?
There is a cultural lag in society and that is reflected in the arts, no more so than in the bastions of theatre. Lost generations of brown and Black playwrights and theatre practitioners who should be on par with the Davids, Lauras and Pollys of the theatre industry but instead are in obscurity or written off. As a theatre-maker of colour, you may find yourself out in the theatre world’s wilderness for years and bristling when the obligatory, performative ‘where are the diverse voices in theatre?’ conversation starts up again.
There is no legacy for theatre-makers of colour of our hard work or the labour of dealing with situations that would be laughable if they weren’t so demoralising. I have many experiences I can refer to to illustrate, including dealing with a white, male gatekeeper who set up a meeting with me assuming (from the way I write apparently) that I am a gay Asian man and was openly disappointed when my female, queer, Asian self walked into the room.
Or the plain but polished white Toast/Boden/Hobbs/Reis wearing white middle-class women who set up meetings in the Traverse bar/cafe and ensure that we are seated at a table where their eyes can rove during our ‘conversation’, always grazing for someone of more interest to catch their eye and dispensing with our 40-minute generic chat as a tick box exercise: meeting with BAME playwright done, non-specific advice given. Holding pattern and status quo maintained. Structural racism of course, unacknowledged. I came to privately refer to this as being given the ‘Traverse eyes’ ™ (!).
But these white literary managers/directors/talent executives feel more than entitled to feedback juicy nuggets such as: my script didn’t quite ‘ring true’ because my Asian characters apparently don’t read as ‘authentic’. They of course assert that they are experts in exercising such judgements. No doubt they have extensive experience in the working-class, Punjabi, queer worlds I create.
Mentoring you maybe thinking could be an answer. Yes it could if you have a mentor who is open to dispensing more than adages and advice and will actually introduce you to people and share access to their networks and open up spaces in a tangible way. Otherwise it is in my experience a tick box exercise: yes, we mentored ‘X’ amount of BAME/emerging playwrights – done. I was once mentored briefly by a successful white, male playwright who admitted he admired my writing but made no moves to share his access to the West End and Scottish theatre world or support me during the disastrous productions of my plays. He did encourage me in the direction of an Asian theatre-maker, clearly thinking that that would be a ‘good fit’ – when I mentioned it wasn’t, he made some passing comment about how ‘Asians could never seem to get along, and asked out loud; ‘Why are we always at each other’s throats?’
Brown and Black people are not a monolith. We don’t all know each other. We don’t, surprise, surprise always like each other. We are as varied in hue and sensibilities as the white world and specifically the world of the arts. Some theatre-makers of colour are happy to work in collaboration with production teams with white people in senior positions, some prefer to work with people who may have similar lived experiences and an understanding of the nuances in play and ask for brown or Black directors, producers and actors. That is our right. We’re not trying to be difficult. We’re trying to create the best piece of work we can and want to share it.
Psst! Lean in and listen up: We theatre-makers of colour, may have ‘stuff’ going on that we don’t own up to in public often, like class, caste, colourism. We don’t want to feel more vulnerable under the white gaze. In my experience, theatre isn’t a writer’s medium for a playwright of colour – I have little to zero autonomy. I can be asked to adapt my script at will. Change the very nature of my intent. Erase intersectionality and intertextuality from the text if you want to make it to the stage because the white ‘we’ doesn’t get it.
In Asia and Africa the origins of theatre lie in folk traditions. They are a means of communal discourse and entertainment. That is not the case here. Theatre in Britain, in Scotland is frequently inaccessible from the point of view of both an audience member and a practitioner. It functions as a filter of class, a very select few get to make theatre, and the theatre they make represents a select, rarefied lived experience.
The reason why white people are shocked by the murder of George Floyd and the shooting of Jacob Blake and are suddenly ‘woke’ to Black Lives Matter’ (Black Lives have ALWAYS mattered) is in part due to the lack of cultural representation of these issues. The post-Covid collapse of the theatre world is an opportune time for change. A reconstruction of an essential art form that is fit for purpose, that offers an equality of opportunity for all – a truly British and Scottish theatre where you don’t have to be called Alan, David, Caryl, Lucy or Polly to write a play of note. We need root and branch change. From gatekeepers to lighting techs who understand how to light brown and Black bodies on stage to full effect. How many non-white productions have taken place in Scotland in the last 5, 10, 15 years? And no more chicken feed creative opportunities and mentoring set-ups that never lead anywhere.
I’m sure my words will be met with pantomime hisses and stage whispered ‘boo-hoo-hoos’ from some within the theatre world. Hard cheese they may say. But representation matters, it is a political as well as cultural issue. It may be a case of adapt or die: theatre needs new audiences and these have to be earned and attracted by offering work that includes rather than excludes them. Theatre needs me: I have stories to tell, I have a voice and I want my children and their peers to see the fruits of my creative labour. I want them to see nuanced, powerful, iconoclastic reflections of themselves on the stage because it matters and because I never did.