Sunday, 1 July 2018

The Dramaturgy Lie: Shaniaz Hama Ali @ Edfringe 2018

Revelations About Race, Class and War At This Year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe
Deva Films and Shaniaz Hama Ali present
The Big Lie
Debuting at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe is a provocative new piece that grapples with the far right politics, sweeping the western world.

In this semi-autobiographical play, Shaniaz is an ambitious associate at Sweden’s leading corporate law firm and is assigned to work with their top client - a global arms manufacturer - to sell arms to Syria. Shaniaz who is an Iraqi-Kurd and a survivor of Saddam Hussein’s genocide of the Kurdish people has to consider whether or not to take on the case. Her conscience tussles with her ambition to become one of the firm’s partners, enabling her to join the ruling class.

Reading your press release, you talk about wanting to write about both racism and the behaviour of the wealthy elite. It seems that this divides into two distinctive ideas, two different kinds of oppressive conduct. 

Racism being rooted in a tribalism and fear of the other, and with the ruling class' activities an expression of the way that money causes oppression, the play seems to address very different problems. Is there a continuity between the experiences of the protagonist in the working class neighbourhood and the offices of the 1%?
My play, in its core, deals with capitalism. And the offices of the 1% represents the capitalist class. 

Racism and capitalism support one another as per Malcolm X’s famous statement, “You can’t have capitalism without racism”. I therefore always find it interesting when racism is referred to as being “rooted in tribalism and the fear of other”. 
Many societies are structured and operate to subordinate one or more portions of their population — politically, culturally, economically or in combinations of these ways — while privileging others. 

The preferred method has been (a) to develop an idea that justifies the subordination and (b) to install that idea as deeply as possible into the thinking of both the subordinated and the privileged.

One such idea is “race,” the notion that sets of inherent (often deemed “natural”) qualities differentiate groups of people from one another in fundamental ways. This idea of race can then be used to explain the subordination of some and the privileges of others as effects of their racial differences. The concept of race thus accomplishes a reversal: Instead of being a produced idea, a post justification of structures of social subordination, race morphs instead into some pre-existing “reality” that caused or enabled the subordination.
We know how and why racism worked often to support slavery around the world and especially in the early United States. Masters endorsed and promoted ideas that justified slaves as subordinated because they were an inferior race. Racist ideology also sometimes supported feudalism by dividing lords and serfs into different races. Indeed, some early capitalist systems likewise racially distinguished employers from employees.

Racism persists in no small part because its benefits to capitalism outweigh its costs.

I think that what we are doing wrong today is that in an effort to fight of racist views we label it as an irrational, deeply biologically rooted “fear of others”. This is simply not true and is feeding in to a capitalist agenda. In Nazi Germany the Jews had been living in Germany for centuries, they were not “the others”, they were made in to “the others” for economic and political purposes.  
I am concerned that British theatre is racist, and your press release emphasises your identity as a Muslim. There aren't many plays by Muslims in the Fringe - proportionally, people of colour are more of a minority in the arts than they are in society, and sport, which is meant to be supported by less progressive fans, actually does a lot better in representation than performance. 

Those works that do exist are then forced to bear so much more responsibility: people like me can't wait to interview you, because we want to demonstrate how inclusive we are, everyone gets to tick their box for inclusivity and never has to consider that there are reasons why certain groups are underrepresented. 
That is very true and I agree. 
Actually, that statement about sport being more inclusive just came to me as a revelation. I mean, football is supposed to be this hotbed of 'toxic masculinity' but it actually does a better job of inclusion than theatre, and doesn't feel the need, unlike artistic directors, to boast about every time there's a play with a cast not entirely composed of white men. 

This is like one of those questions you get at after-show discussions, in which someone babbles on about their thoughts and then says... can you respond to this?It was a somewhat brilliant revelation I must say. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. 

You write: “everyone gets to tick their box for inclusivity and never has to consider that there are reasons why certain groups are underrepresented”. Well then let’s talk about that, and examine it from the point of view that football is more inclusive.

I think this simply has to do with class. In sports, it’s still a rarity to see black or other minority golf players, ice hockey players or for that matter a polo player. Football is cheap, these sports are not. 

I think you would find that it’s a rarity to see anyone from a working-class background in these posh sports, including white working-class. And the same goes for theatre. Going to drama school is expensive and coming from a working-class background, you simply don’t have the connections needed to get in to the industry.

And who are the groups that suffers the most when we don’t talk about the underrepresentation of working-class people in the arts? Well, today, it’s black and minorities. The working-class of today's UK or anywhere else really in the West is more diverse and are in many ways predominantly black and brown. Perhaps, if we want more diversity in the arts, we will have to look at the reason there isn’t, which is money, class. 

And that is essentially what I am trying to do with my play, evoke the discussion about class. Not at the cost of the discussion about race, but merely, a way of understanding the narrative of race better. 

I'm really sorry, I've just gone into one now. Usually, I am like 'what is your dramaturgical approach?', and the fact that I am not just asking that really exposes how I can't just act normally about the idea of a play by a Muslim. There's an interesting note in your press release though: this story was first conceived as a film script. What provoked its transition into a solo theatre piece? Do you think theatre has any advantages over film for this kind of story?
I do think theatre has an advantage. For someone like me, telling a semi-autobiographical play, it gives me an opportunity to talk to my audience, create a connection without anything filtering the connection between me and them. It feels more raw and truthful. 

You talk about the 1%, which suggests a belief in a certain way of structuring society from a certain perspective - an anti-capitalist one. Is that an important part of the play's intention, and is that expressed in the dramturgy at all?
I would say it is the plays intention. But any political point I am trying to make I have weaved into entrancing theatricality. The beauty with political plays, is the “play” and one must not forget that writing a political piece. 

You are both writer and performer: how does that experience impact on the way the script has evolved during the rehearsal process?
I can barely distinguish the difference between writing and rehearsing anymore. Throughout the whole writing process I have many times preformed the scene before putting it in to print. And during rehearsal I have gone back and rewritten the script depending on how it felt during rehearsal.   
The script is semi-autobiographical: does that allow a degree of freedom to explore ideas in the abstract, or is there a danger of giving factual weight to some of the elements that are fictional?
To be honest, everything I’ve written down have some degree of truth in it. Nothing is completely fictional so I have never really felt that I’m giving factual weight to events that haven’t taken place. The reason I chose to go semi-autobiographical was mostly of dramaturgy reasons and also because I, as you write, wanted to have the option to explore ideas and make my points clearer. 
Political theatre is always fashionable at the Fringe, and that politics is usually on the left. Do you think that theatre can effect change, or do the innate conservatism of the form - it revolves around the notion of the artist as an entrepreneur, and follows established structures of form - and the rampant consumerism of the Fringe - the big money being made here is for the landowners and venue managers, not the artists - undermine any revolutionary potential or radical message? Can it ever be more than a talking shop for where middle class people nod their heads in agreement and pretend that seeing a play is enough activism for one week? Does it reach anyone else?Funny enough, when I wrote my play I was always thinking about the audience being people I wanted to reach out too, that I wanted to convince; a white-working class audience, painfully knowing, that audience properly wouldn’t be at the Fringe. 

At the same time, the middle-class is the very core in any political revolution. Those who can win over the middle class wins. And if they are at the Fringe, and agree with my play, then I guess it’s a win.

The Big Lie makes us question our own morality. In Shaniaz’s shoes, would we take on this case?

This humorous, gripping play is co-written by Shaniaz Hama Ali and Deva Palmier - an award winning filmmaker who is also directing the piece. Shaniaz worked as an associate at a global corporate law firm in Sweden, where she gained first-hand insight into a world that is normally hidden.

Shaniaz fictionalised her experiences at the firm in a film screenplay that caught the interest of a Swedish production company. When Shaniaz moved to London, she made it into a one-woman show to bring to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Shaniaz says of The Big Lie, “As a Muslim refugee I wanted to make a play about the racism I experienced growing up in an all-white, working-class neighbourhood in Sweden and why people vote for the far right, for Brexit and Trump. But mostly, I want to tell the truth about the clients of the corporate law firm that I worked in - the wealthy 1%, the ruling class and their role in all of this.

Shaniaz Hama Ali is a Kurdish-Iraqi actress who came as a refugee to Sweden at a very young age. She joined the Swedish Labour Party and became the fiscal spokesperson for the Labour youth. But Shaniaz had a passion for acting that never subsided, she resigned from her job as a legal consultant and moved to London to focus on her acting career. She has since then starred in the short film PRACTICE; performed in the critically acclaimed French TV-series The Bureau (Canal+); and most recently in Red Snake, directed by Caroline Fourest, award winning French journalist, in her feature debut.

Listings Information
Venue: theSpace @ Jury’s Inn                                 
Dates and tickets: 

Mon 6 Aug - Sat 11 Aug 2018; £5 (£3)
Mon 11 Aug - Sat 16 Aug 2018;
Time:  15:05-16:00 (50m) 
13-16 Aug 2018 12:35-13:30

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