From exclusion to limelight

Photographer: David Fisher

She was lying there on the cold ground, her body wasn’t moving. Just a second ago she was standing in between two of the people she loved most in this world in a desperate attempt to keep them from tearing one another apart. Around her people were screaming. Their faces looked terrified. She could still hear the violence going on around her. What had just happened? She just wanted to help and instead she had become the unfortunate victim of an attack aimed at someone else.

So begins the new thought-provoking theatre play written by the award-winning playwright Atiha Sen Gupta. It follows the relationship between three teenagers who are born on the same day and in the same town but with completely different ethnical backgrounds. And what happens after when a shocking event blows their worlds apart and their friendship with it. The play deals with serious issues such as the loss of a loved one, extremism and violence.

It’s the second part in a trilogy by the theatre Company Mandala which explores the themes; place, identity and belonging and has been researched through creative workshops with young people around the country. The first part of the trilogy called Night Light looked at what makes young people want to belong in the UK but makes can’t. It explored young asylum seekers who often come here at the age of 11 and 12 and are then at 18 deported back to their country of birth with perhaps no family left and no sense of belonging.

“I direct the plays that I want to see on stage, Yasmin Sidhwa says. “They are stories that I think aren’t told they’re about people that are often not listened to or heard. I want to bring those stories to the mainstream but also to places where those people whose stories it is can also see it”.

Sidhwa says the play is particularly relevant now because of what’s happening in Britain with Brexit and the growing issue of Islamophobia.“I’m not a Muslim but I feel like if there was ever a time where people are being scapegoated at the moment it’s to do with Islam and it’s to do with culture”.

Being of mixed-race herself with a father from India and a mother of English heritage Sidhwa thinks they are important topics to explore. Growing up in Frinton-on-Sea she says she didn’t always felt like she fit in because it was very mono-cultured and quite affluent. “I don’t know that I would ever go back and live in Frinton but it’s formed me and that’s something that’s good” Yasmin Sidhwa says.

Yasmin Ahsanulla who plays the part of a Muslim girl called Asha says the play made her think about her own sense of belonging to the place where she grew up. Originally from Finland and being of Asian heritage herself, she grew up in small town made up of almost entirety white people. “I think doing this has made me really think about it in a different way because I never used to think about it. It was just something that was a normal that I grew up in an entirely white community”, Ahsanulla says.

When Yasmin Sidwha created the Mandala Theatre Company four years ago after having worked as an actor she wanted to create a company that would focus on social justice and at the same time be entertaining and of a high standard. The play visits colleges, universities and schools all around the country and after each show the cast and crew have a panel with local politicians, councillors and young people where they discuss the topics and issues being raised. “Things in the play really need talking about and in every city and town we go to we always have a mandala Debate and it’ll be happening here at the Lakeside with local panellists”.

Sidwha says it was particularly interesting in Bath College because of the almost all-white audience. She says she was pleased that one young man was brave enough to say that he thought he was going to hate it because he considered himself a patriot but admitted that it actually made him think. Other people in the room where not as impressed by what he had to say but Sidwha says it’s important that we have these kinds of discussions.

“We’ve become so PC that people won’t talk and then when they given half a chance it’s bubbling under the surface” she says.

Actor Jonathan Clarke-Hesson who plays the part of Sam says the issues the play raises is what drew him into doing the play and he think’s it’s a great idea to have a panel discussion after each show.“People come with different kind of knowledge they come with different experience and they might have gotten something different from the play that other people haven’t so it’s good to hear what they think” he says.

Andy Greaves to the left and Jonathan Clarke-Hesson on the right. Photographer: David Fisher

An 18-year-old drama student, Jonathan Mark Green who went to see the play at the Lakeside Theatre took part in the panel discussion after the show. He says he always looks to learn that the topics the play explored such as the need to belong and the danger that comes of it is what made him interested in coming to see the show. “I really felt like that it could be an interesting experience to not only go and see but then to talk about outside of the show and spread the message on and I shall definitely intend to do that” he says.

According to Andy Greaves, who plays the part of Kieran, the most important thing is not what people take away from the play as long as it makes them think. “There are so many plays people go to see and they go home or go to the pub and have a drink or just go sleep so I think its important just to take anything away and think yeah that’s really hit me” he says.

With a company based in Oxford, Yasmin Sidhwa has never before brought a play to Essex or performed here as an actor but says it’s good to be back. “I’m actually looking around at the university going it’s actually really pretty diverse which I hadn’t expected because obviously my memories of this county are it was very white so it’s really good to see”.

The tour is almost over and it has its next and final stop in Canterbury at the Gulbenkian Theatre on November the 1st. Sidwha is now excited to see the play at the Lakeside Theatre at Essex University in hopes that it will have a resonance here.

“I think to me if this reaches the people that I wanted to reach it will be almost like actually I am accepted here now and I do belong whereas for a long time I think I felt I didn’t”.





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