Migration, Secret Lives, Theatre

Mwana: “Can I call you Jimmy?”

A personal response to Mwana (an Ankur Production at the Traverse Theatre). Not a review

I have, after many years, only recently started going to the theatre. I have seen two plays in the last two weeks. First Snookered (Tamasha Theatre Company), the second Mwana ; both at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh. The last play I saw before these, was in 2003. The long gap has been because of a certain resistance to the theatre.

I thought that, part of my resistance to the theatre, was because many productions on offer seemed inaccessible to me. I have had to examine that resistance, because as a writer I would also like to write plays. And how dare I write plays when I won’t see the work of other playwrights? I realise that my resistance is actually not to the language on the stage, but the language that surrounds it. It is the language of the post- theatre chat, the review or the discussion of how a play presents, that I find inaccessible. The discussion of how a piece is “dramaturgically” or the “self consciousness of the staging” or the un-likeability of a character, which leads to a failure, to explore properly this or that theme. I find these discussions off- putting. I find the language of critique almost clinical and forensic -critique of plays which have “heart” and “love” and “empathy”.

I have a problem with “art for art’s” sake. I am not particularly interested in my art as a form, in and of itself. I want art, plays, novels, to do something. I want them to move me, inspire me to effect change and to comfort me. I want them to make me feel that I am not alone. As the, oft used, C. S. Lewis quotation advises “we read so that we know we are not alone.”

And that is, perhaps, my other issue with “the theatre”; that often the people, who would be, who should be made to feel  less alone, are not seeing the plays. Their “secrets” are being told on stage and they are sitting at home oblivious that there is a play about their lives on at their local theatre. Snookered is a play which focuses on a group of working class British Pakistani men. There were only three people of colour, that I saw in the audience, on the particular night I went. Mwana is set in Zimbabwe. Its audience on the night I went, was of a similar ethnic mix, or lack of it, to that of Snookered.

Of course, if a play is good, then it should touch your heart, whatever your ethnic background. But maybe if the subject matter is not one that is immediately familiar, one needs to approach that lack of familiarity with, perhaps a little humility. Maybe a play, at first, does not make you feel less alone. Maybe it makes you feel uncomfortable or challenged. Maybe it is the playwright’s duty to first challenge you. But then guide you gently into his or her world, so that at the end you do have empathy for otherwise unfamiliar characters.

I suspect there are many people living in the UK, who if they saw Mwana would feel that they were not alone. If you have ever been told that your name is unpronounceable; or “I won’t even try to say that, can I call you X or Y or Jimmy” Or, “Oh no, you are going to have to spell that for me.” If you sometimes yearn to hear your name pronounced properly, just to have a greater sense of belonging with the indigenous population…Well, then Mwana will make you feel less alone. Then Mwana is for you.

If you are, sometimes on a daily basis, reminded that you are “not from here”, different from the norm, then it is a relief to see a character, on stage, express the same discomfort. My family and I currently live in a predominantly white area. I was always taught that British people are polite and do not stare. That, I am afraid, is not always the case. There are times when I feel I should sell tickets so that people can pay for a clear prolonged view of my family. Maybe I should request payment when people ask my elder son “Can I touch your afro?” rather than tell them, “No, he is not a pet.” If you have had similar experiences then I suspect that Mwana might be for you.

Or, if you have returned “home” knowing that whilst your family will be very happy to see you, they will also be very happy to receive your “hard” currency and Western consumer goods, then Mwana is probably for you. If you have listened patiently to how lucky you are to live in the “advanced” UK, or US or wherever, and that it has made you soft and over-privileged etc. etc. etc. , and then been silenced if you try to describe some of your experiences of alienation in the UK or US. Well…

If you have ever been called a “salad boy”, or a “London pulit” or an NRI (non-resident Indian) or a even a coconut, “back home” and then made to feel as if you do not belong with your “host community, ” then Mwana will make you feel less alone. Then Mwana is for you. As one of Hanif Kureishi ‘s uncle’s (a resident of Pakistan) said to him “‘We are Pakistanis, but you will always be a Paki.”

One review suggested that Mwana “restlessly shifts in and out of focus”, that it is “all over the place.” But that is exactly the point. The immigrant experience is all “over the place”. The character Mwanawashe (Mwana for short) would have heard the wedding music of his homeland as strongly in his head as the R&B and hip hop that he danced to in the Glasgow nightclubs he frequented. The immigrant experience does shift, in and out of focus. One minute you are British, the next you are Zimbabwean or Pakistani, the next you are a Paki or whatever other insult there is in the racists’ lexicon. And you are always asked, almost everyday “where are you from?” Sometimes you do not know the answer yourself.

I do not think that you have to be an immigrant or a child of immigrant to “get” Mwana. There is much in it actually, for all of us to feel less alone. If you have a teenage son whose trousers fall well below his waist; a teenage son who rolls his eyes recalcitrantly and moans ungratefully at a life that is much better than yours was at his age, you will find something to empathise with in Mwana. If you have despaired at your children’s apparent lack of values only to be later surprised by their courage or desire to make things right-then you will not feel… well you get my drift.

The hero, Mwanawashe’s, character has been described in reviews as an “unsympathetic, self pitying adolescent” and “privileged and childish”.  I am sure there are many of us who have taken home a girlfriend or boyfriend only to behave appallingly in the presence of our parents. People are at their most unsympathetic and childish when they are with their families. Mwana presents an utterly believable scenario.

And yes, I did get a little confused by certain turns of the plot. This is not, however, because themes were not adequately explored, but because I simply didn’t follow some of the twists. There seemed to be three “characters” that were often referred to, but never actually appeared. I lost a little track of their personalities. (It may well be just be me.)That is all.

That is all, and really of no matter, because I was moved and empathized and sympathized and actually enthralled by some of the acting and indeed “staging”. I loved the dream sequences. I have often been haunted myself, at night, by the voices of some of my more critical relatives.

I loved Mwana overall. It did its job for me. Just as Snookered had done a week before. And so I was a little surprised to find that the reviews for Mwana, although in part positive, were much less full of praise. Why such a stark difference?

And now, I must be tentative. I can only wonder, suggest. Snookered takes us into the world of British Asian men living in Manchester. The characters were “part-time” Muslims, they drank alcohol, had white girlfriends, mistresses and were basically “likely lads.” The non-Muslims in a Snookered audience might quite rightly conclude, that not only, are we all “brothers under the skin”, but that a lot of Pakistanis are basically like them. As Shaf (one of the snooker playing group) says in response to the accusation that Asians do not integrate: “ere mate I’m stood in a pub, drinking a pint, watching England play football what more do you want me to do…”

The character of Mwana is also “our brother under the skin”, but we see him first in Harare and then the bush, doing things that are not exactly like everyone does in the UK. One review spoke about an “irrelevant wedding conga”. Actually, I loved all the wedding dancing and the music. It was far from irrelevant. It was warm and uplifting, but for the purpose of moving the story on, it gave us more than a flavour of how different Mwana’s life in Zimbabwe was from Glasgow. And maybe, because that life was portrayed, as so different, with its “medicine men”, “black magic” and snake bites, that some in an audience might resist the inclination towards empathy. Empathy, however, which is no less deserved.

But I think the audience, the night I saw Mwana, did empathize with its characters. I am not sure that the reviews I’ve read accord with the experience of many of “my fellow audience”. People clapped for a long time. The play was very funny and people laughed, a lot. And laughter, is surely the most universal of languages. And indeed, makes us feel just a little less alone.

Go see it. Enjoy.

Mwana written by Tawona Sithole, directed by Shabina Aslam is an Ankur Production.

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