New play by London-based writer Zia Ahmed explores race and identity through a love story between an actor and a poet
The Oscars of 2022 will, it’s fair to say, likely be remembered for one thing – the Will Smith/Chris Rock – shall we say ‘interaction’?
The Slap had such powerful reverberations that little else from the event that night back in March stands much chance of being remembered at all, which is devastating for many of the winners of the night, but perhaps none more so than Riz Ahmed. The British actor, writer, rapper, sickeningly talented all-rounder won an Oscar in what will, in time, come to be considered a hugely significant cultural moment, I’m sure.
When he won the Oscar for best Live Action Short, Ahmed became the first British Muslim to hold the golden statuette. The winning film was The Long Goodbye, a film (which I highly recommend seeking out) about the British Asian contemporary experience and the fears within the community.
Ahmed’s film is part of a constantly moving conversation about race and racism in the West, a conversation that is becoming more nuanced and, frankly, less comfortable for some as those of us who have lived with racism start to elbow our way to claiming more space and demanding that our voices are heard.
“It is a really nuanced look at race, at Islamophobia, at how we accept the construct of whiteness, at all of those ideas, but it’s also a story about a romantic relationship,” says Hussain.
Writer Ahmed adds: “At no point in the play are there any racial slurs, because that’s not always what the insidious nature of Islamophobia and racism is about. I wanted to write a love story where that stuff is in there, but it isn’t necessarily about that.”
We meet at the Playhouse during a break from rehearsals. The break occurs over lunchtime, but neither Ahmed nor Hussain are eating anything as they are fasting for Ramadan. That the play is being rehearsed during the Muslim holy month feels significant to both director and writer.
“We all have become used to code-switching, to hiding parts of ourselves, or at least not bringing our full selves into creative spaces,” says Hussain.
“I’ve been able to really lean into it rather than feel like it’s something we’re battling. Ramadan is the most beautiful time of year for me and I love the fact that these two roles, my role as a Muslim and as a director are coiniciding at a time when I’m working on this play that explores so many things about my identity.”
The play tackles similar themes, exploring the notion of someone who works in a creative industry who also happens to be Muslim and British Asian – but in the case of the play, feels compromised and has to bring only part of themselves into each part of their lives.
I Wanna Be Yours tells the story of Ella, an actor from Hebden Bridge who lives in London, likes red wine and Haseeb. Poet Haseeb meanwhile is a Londoner who definitely prefers a hot chocolate over a glass of red.
We see their individual lives and their developing relationship as they negotiate awkward family encounters, arguments that any couple might have, arguments that only a multi-racial couple would have and we watch as the elephant in the room – race – continues to be ignored.
For London-poet Ahmed, it’s the second time in 12 months that his work has appeared in Yorkshire – he was responsible for the script for the Common Wealth production of Peaceophobia, staged in a Bradford car park.
“The play is based on personal experiences, stories I’ve heard from friends. I wanted to write about a – I’m not sure what to call it, inter-racial relationship? I’ve seen that story, that couple dynamic told before, but it’s always told at an extreme where someone’s brother is a member of the National Front or their dad is an out and out racist and the threat of violence is always there,” says Ahmed.
“The things I’ve found quite difficult in my own experience have never been those big things, they’ve always been much smaller things. You know how they say of people in love that ‘it’s the little things that count’, well what about the little things that matter from a less positive place? I was interested in exploring that.”
It’s the microaggressions that Hussain, Ahmed and myself have all experienced, but that are sometimes difficult to pin down and define. It feels like the conversation is evolving
and has been over recent years, with the Black Lives Matter movement opening up some uncomfortable subjects and closer to home, the Yorkshire Cricket Club racism scandal making people more aware of what these seemingly small notes of behaviour look like.
“When you see them happen on stage, I think it will be interesting for people to be able to actually see what those microaggressions look like,” says Hussain.
“And it’s not the case that people are going to always side with one particular character. I was watching a scene play out and I found myself thinking that I could totally see where Ella was coming from and that Haseeb just needed to say one thing to clear up the misunderstanding.
“That’s the beauty of the piece, it’s a really nuanced exploration of a relationship and race is just one part of that story.”
I Wanna Be Yours, Bramall Rock Void, Leeds Playhouse, April 29-May 14. Tickets from the box office on 0113 2137700 or via the theatre’s website www.leedsplayhouse.org.uk