The Shakespeare Globe’s festival Shakespeare & Race kicked off with Voices In The Dark, a performance that looks at the importance of race to the consideration of Shakespeare in his time and our own. In collaboration with Voices and Intermission Youth Theatre, it was an evening of stories delivered beautifully by Muslim poets and actors.
We’ve all studied Shakespeare in school, both bewildered and impressed with the art of language, forever considering the implications on our own language and stories. With the importance on English being ‘beautiful’, in the modern era of colloquialisms, I found myself wondering what my mother tongue brought to the table in terms of art.
Muslim voices, especially in this political climate, with the comments made by public figures such as Boris Johnson, are vital. “I grew up in a Muslim household in Texas. We were different, yes, but we were also the same - how anyone can question the importance and abundance of creativity and invention in Islamic culture and Islamic history seems madness to me. But also the range of experiences Muslims growing up in the West can bring to this creative process is incredibly exciting and hopefully will demonstrate that creativity is not a white, European, Christian privilege” says festival director, Dr Farah Karim-Cooper.
The emphasis is on Muslim voices and black Muslims - something the South Asian community tends to forget. Growing up in a predominantly anti-black household and community, the silencing of black voices was not only prevalent but stated with pride. “At least my daughter isn’t with a black man!” is a common cutting insult announced by family members across the globe. Growing up I was told I could marry who I wanted (as if that was my ultimate goal)…except for Muslims, black people and so on, witling the list down to ‘Sikh men from the pind’.
So it was no surprise to me to hear that they are one of the most discriminated group in the UK – not only from the native British, but immigrants too. There’s nothing quite as emotional as hearing the pain of someone’s story from the very group you know your community has discriminated against. Kwame Reed, a young poet and actor was the first to grace the stage, educating us all on being racially profiled and being sold lines of self hatred - "you told me my skin was far too dark to rate myself" ending with "they might look and see a loser, but I look and see a king". The crowd screams in agreement.
We see personal stories told by Muslim voices, interspersed with Shakesperean acts; my favourite being the wedding scene from Much Ado About Nothing, where young black actors perform in early modern English and black vernacular - filming on their phones while discussing purity in virginity – which again relates directly back to their Muslim lives. That scene in particular made sense to conceptualise as it held the values of religion - universally on terms of patriarchy – and marriage.
Some of you may know Sanah Ahsan, a trainee psychologist and poet who graced the cover of our latest issue. She worked closely alongside the Globe to bring this performance to light. Selection of readings were made in late night meetings, discussing the importance and functionality of telling each story. "There’s undoubtedly some problematic elements to exploring how Shakespeare remains contemporary in the context of race, particularly in a time where so many talented black and brown writers exist that can better and creatively articulate their own experiences. It remains important however, to deconstruct platforms which may have been historically associated with whiteness, power and privilege, and use them to illuminate voices in the “dark”. It was a ground breaking opportunity to show our differing personal truths and experiences - really highlighting the diversity of what it is to be Muslim, beyond the drowning rhetoric of oppression or terrorism offered by the media."
As a Muslim woman, who navigates her Britishness, religion and queerness – she felt an abundant importance in telling these stories "For me personally, it was both emotionally challenging and liberating to embrace such a reputable stage and speak openly about my identity through poetry. Queer Muslim wxmen are often made to feel and act invisible; it is a political act in itself to give light to our existence, and to show we are here in abundance. There is power in seeing that people can hold onto their faith, alongside their sexuality with equal pride and without compromising one for the other."
But why Shakespeare? “For centuries, the domains of Shakespearean scholarship and theatre performance have been predominantly white, and what that tells people is that it is something only privileged people can access. Shakespeare’s Globe has spent the last two decades finding ways to make Shakespeare more accessible - now we can listen to people from as diverse a range of backgrounds as possible, to tell their stories and claim ownership of Shakespeare” explains Dr Karim-Cooper.
A performance from Naeem Hayat resonates with viewers as he re-enacts reactions when travelling on public transport with his gym bag. He laughs at why he would kill himself while wearing a vintage top and ‘’bring so much attention to himself’ with bright red trainers. You hear the frustration in the jokes – you know he’s told them a few times. There’s a difference between being palatable to the white gaze with these jokes and it’s another to share common frustrations with those who understand.
The night stage was beautiful, the people just as stunning and the stories. The stories really hit home. A discussion about mere existence varies from sexual abuse to physical assault, and it’s not a one-off story. How you know is by looking around the audience and watching those nod their heads in exasperation.