Interview with 'Spun' playwright Rabiah Hussain
The play deals with the effect of the London bombings on two British Pakistani women living in Newham, London. What impact did the 7/7 bombings have on your identity as a British Pakistani and Londoner?
As a Londoner, I felt solidarity with other Londoners and a deep sense of home people generally feel following a tragedy in their city. But as a British Pakistani Londoner, the spotlight thrown on the community left me in a state of confusion. In particular because of the questions around 'integration' and I lived in a part of London these questions were directed at. I started to feel apologetic for my background but time taught me that no one should feel like that. I certainly don't feel like that now.
What themes were you keen to explore and shine a light on in the play?
Spun looks at race, religion and class mainly. It's about home and identity but I wanted all these themes to centre around the friendship of Safa and Aisha. That's what is at the heart of the play. We see how the outside world changes their sense of self, through microaggressions, media and institutions. There are absolutely no extremes in this play. It's about a story in the 'middle' which hopefully highlights how complex and multidimensional our stories can be.
The play is a brilliantly unique and intimate exploration of race, class and ethnicity in modern Britain and London specifically. What do you hope audiences will gain from watching Spun?
I hope audiences from similar backgrounds will see a representation of themselves on stage. That's been the most important part of the process for me. For audiences of other backgrounds, I hope Spun highlights the intersections of race, class and ethnicity through a relatable and universal story. I want people to see what it's like to be on the receiving end of microaggressions in particular.
Was it important for you to cast British Pakistani/Asian actresses in the roles of Safa and Aisha?
It was incredibly important for me to have a cast that were from the same world as the characters because that's the only way we'll move towards getting true representation. I was keen to have at least South Asian Muslim actresses if we weren't able to find British Pakistani ones, so we worked hard to get as many South Asian women in for auditions as possible. I have been so lucky to have Aasiya Shah, who is British Pakistani, and Humaira Iqbal, who is Muslim Gujrati. Both are actually from East London, so they know this world so well. They not only brought the East London rhythm to the play but also their own experiences of being British Asian Muslim girls growing up in the city.
What are your thoughts on representations of the British Pakistani experience in the arts hitherto?
I think up until now a lot has been about extremes or stereotypes, which completely ignores the experiences of all those in the 'middle' - those everyday experiences which have an extra dimension because of our heritage. Pakistan has a rich history and culture, and as British Pakistanis, we hold that richness within us. With the various stories about the British Pakistani community I'm seeing in the arts recently, I am hopeful we are moving forward to a place where we can have real representation, making it more than just a tick box exercise.
With Guleraana Mir’s recent play ‘Coconut’ and a new BBC series 'Englistan' dealing with the British Pakistani experience involving Riz Ahmed, there seems to be a surge in refreshingly contemporary and nuanced British Pakistani-focused art out recently. Is this heartening for you? Why is it important?
It really is. I'm deeply proud of my Pakistani heritage, and I love our culture, traditions and the country itself. To see our experiences represented in theatre and TV means we can change the narrative around how we have been presented up until now. Away from stereotypes, we are hopefully moving towards showing the richness of our culture and people who are interesting and complex. Representation in the arts has been a long struggle for all minority groups but what is encouraging is that we are in a position where so many people are doing things themselves - starting collectives, hosting events, writing books etc. This means that people are reaching audiences at a grass root level and there are more people coming together to demand the institutions take notice. There's a real power in that.
Which British Pakistani/ Pakistani writers and artists do you admire?
Riz Ahmed, of course, is blaizing a trail for us right now. I admire his work immensely. I love the music of Zoe Viccaji and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy is a brilliant and inspirational director.
Yours is a distinctive and much-needed voice in British theatre. How did you get into playwriting and what advice do you offer to budding BAME playwrights?
I always loved writing so I started looking into how I can become a writer. I came across programmes at both Kali Theatre and Royal Court and that was the first time I did anything in playwrighting. If you don't come from the world of theatre, it can be a long game, but my advice would be to apply to programmes and find mentors. Tamasha Theatre does amazing work in supporting BAME playwrights, so try their masterclasses or apply for their year-long playwrights programme. Most importantly, believe in your voice. It matters and is needed, so claim your space and keep going.
With Natasha Gordon's debut play Nine Night announcing its West End Transfer recently, is it a good time for BAME people in British theatre?
I think there is definitely progress being made but there's still a long way to go. It's amazing to see productions such as Nine Night and Barbershop Chronicles at The National, but if we're to do more, we need to work with schools to show young BAME people how theatre works. A lot is dependent on your exposure to theatre and knowing about the industry. Confidence is key so we have to ensure we build this from a young age.
What’s next for you?
I'm currently on the BBC Drama Room programme so I'll be busy with that for a few months. I have lots of plans and am already writing the next piece!
Rabiah Hussain's debut play 'Spun' is on until 28 July at the Arcola Theatre, London.