'I just want to tell different stories about people like me'

First published in Profiles

When Shabina Aslam took up her post as artistic director of Ankur Productions last summer, she knew she had a tough act to follow. Neil Cooper talks to Shabina Aslam about her debut production.

Under her predecessor, Lalitha Rajan, who founded the company in 2004 to present work by and for black and ethnic minority groups, Ankur had co-produced Roadkill, the Cora Bissett directed site-specific work about sex-trafficking that became one of the highest profile shows of recent years.

Rather than attempt to rehash the idea, Aslam's debut production, Mwana, by first-time playwright Tawona Sithole, aims to fuse poetry and drama in a tale of the conflicting loyalties of a young Zimbabwean boy living and studying in Glasgow.

The play's form is a world Aslam knows well.

"In most black and other ethnic minority communities, the first form of expression is oral, through spoken word and poetry," she says. "Trying to find a black playwright has been difficult.

What you generally find are the poets, and over the years in places I've worked it's occurred to us to take these poets and turn them into playwrights.

The sort of poetry they write is autobiographical, it's in a single voice, and they perform it. So they already have a theatrical sensibility. All you're doing is trying to get them to write for multiple voices."

In contemporary times, such expression dates to The Last Poets during the 1960s Black Power era, to Gil Scott Heron and the rap and hip hop artists they influenced. In the UK, look to Linton Kwesi Johnson, Benjamin Zephaniah and Manchester poet Lemn Sissay.

It's no coincidence that in 2005 Aslam produced and directed Something Dark, an autobiographical piece by Sissay for on Radio 3.

Aslam also worked with young black writers at Manchester's Contact Theatre. Given that Sithole is a poet, Mwana seems a perfect fit.

Performed by a cast of five professional actors supported by four members of the young people's ethnic minority-based Ignite Theatre Co, Mwana has been in development for the last two years since Rajan set up a writers' group led by Ignite's Aileen Ritchie. Like his protagonist, Sithole is from Zimbabwe, and has lived in Glasgow for 10 years since moving here to study healthcare. Although he denies that Mwana is autobiographical, the fact his creation is also a medical student points to some level of putting his own experience onstage. Aslam, meanwhile, was born in Kenya and raised in Bradford.

Says Aslam: "For someone who's black, it's difficult to be taken on board in a mainstream role. If you look at who runs theatres in the UK, there are only two British Asian women – Indhu Rubasingham at the Tricycle and Purni Morell at the Unicorn – which are recent appointments.

"The reason I went into theatre, first as a writer, was because I became excited by reading Augusto Boal and Athol Fugard, who worked with ordinary people to tell their stories. Most theatre I saw didn't say anything by or about people like me or people I knew. I wanted to tell our stories."

Aslam came up through community education groups. She points out: "I'm not doing this because I believe doing plays will lead to community cohesion. I just want to tell different stories about people like me."

As well as her theatre work with Contact, Kali Theatre and the Quatar Foundation, Aslam was diversity director at BBC Radio Drama, where she worked with Sissay and initiated the Norman Beaton Fellowship.

Named after the Guyanese-born actor who was one of the earliest black performers to work in the British mainstream, the Fellowship encourages actors from black and ethnic minorities and with non-traditional training.

Aslam's last project was Sounds Like Graffiti, a radio play which audiences could listen to on their mobiles while walking around a Bradford park.

It taps into a desire by Aslam to work with social media. "Anybody who wants to do a play should have the resources to do so, and that can be made possible through social media which provides cheaper tools and greater platforms," she says. "There's something about new technology that allows more people to participate. Look at the Arab Spring. That was all done by Blackberry. That's when you can see how things change."

Mwana, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, February 13-18; Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, February 22-25. Visit www.ankurproductions.org.uk.

(From the Herald)

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