Thursday, 9 February 2012

Mwana - Shabina Aslam Takes Over Ankur

When Shabina Aslam took up her post as artistic director of Ankur 
Productions last summer, she knew she had a tough act to follow. 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 always oral,  through spoken word and poetry,” she says. 
“So often when I've worked elsewhere trying to find a black playwright 
has been difficult. What you generally find first are the poets, and 
over the years in different places I've worked in, it's occurred to us, 
to take these poets and try and turn them into playwrights. Because the 
sort of poetry they write is autobiographical, it's usually in a single 
voice, and they perform it. So they already have a kind of theatrical 
sensibility, a sense of lyricism and of a platform with the audience, 
and all you're really doing is trying to get them to write for multiple 

In contemporary times, such means of expression dates back to The Last 
Poets during the 1960s Black Power era, right through to Gil Scott 
Heron and the Rap and Hip Hop artists they influenced. In the UK, one 
can look to Linton Kwesi Johnson, Benjamin Zephaniah and Manchester 
poet, Lemn Sissay.

It's probably no coincidence, then, that in 2005, Aslam produced and 
directed Something Dark, an autobiographical piece by Sissay broadcast 
on BBC Radio 3. Aslam also worked with young black writers at 
Manchester's Contact Theatre. Given that Sithole too is a poet, Mwana 
seems a perfect fit for all concerned. 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 the last ten years since moving here to study healthcare. 
Although he denies that Mwana is a full-blown autobiography, the fact 
that his creation is also a medical student points to at least some 
level of putting his own experience onstage. Aslam, meanwhile, was born 
in Kenya, but was raised in Bradford.

“For someone who's black, it's still quite 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 running theatres - Indhu 
Rubasingham at the Tricycle and Purni Morell at the Unicorn – which are 
both very recent appointments, but on the whole, arts organisations are 
run by a particular class of person. But the reason I went into theatre 
in the first place, first as a writer, was because I became excited by 
reading Augusto Boal and Athol Fugard, who both 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, where niche funding 
strands allowed such organisations to explore their experience through 
art. She is careful to point out, however, that “I'm not doing this 
just because I necessarily believe doing plays will lead to community 
cohesion. I just want to tell different kinds of stories about people 
like me.”

As well as her theatre work with Contact, Kali Theatre and the Quatar 
Foundation, Aslam spent several years as diversity director at BBC 
Radio Drama, where she not only worked with Sissay, but 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 Foundation encourages actors from black and ethnic minorities and 
with non-traditional training to gain a foothold in the industry. 
Aslam's most recent project was Sounds Like Graffiti, an episodic radio 
play which audiences could listen to on their mobile phones while 
walking around a Bradford park.

Sounds Like Graffiti taps into a desire by Aslam to work more with 
social media.

“Ideally, we want as much art for as many people as possible,” she 
explains. “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, so it's possible to make 
more work and have control over those platforms. One of the projects we 
did as part of Mwana was to get a group of people together to write and 
film short stories about the main character's life on their mobile 
phones, then show short two minute films using various social networks. 
It's the egalitarian nature of social media that helps get art out 
there to more people.”

Aslam's idea for future of Ankur, then, is inclusive in the best sense 
of the word.

“Coming to Ankur is an opportunity to build something on a long-term 
basis,” she says, “and it's the range of work that the company do that 
interests me. Ankur works in the communities with cross-artforms, and 
is also interested in developing emerging artists. So there was a 
political as well as social motivation for me to come to the company. 
There's something about new technology that allows more people to 
participate, and that opens up so many opportunities. Look at the Arab 
Spring. That was all done by Blackberry. That's when you can see how 
things can really change.”

Mwana, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, February 13th-18th; Traverse Theatre, 
Edinburgh, February 22nd-25th.

The Herald, February 9th 2012


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