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Rabiah Hussain had given up on having her debut play performed. As a second generation British Pakistani writer she’d found that theatre programmers expected plays about terrorism and fundamentalism. She wanted to do something different. “If you’re an Asian girl you’re expected to write about honour killings,” Hussain says. “If you see South Asian communities on stage there’s always something relating to terrorism, or they’ll be on the opposite end of the spectrum and have completely let go of their culture and identity.”
Her play Spun would feature a terrorist attack, but the focus would be squarely on how it affects the friendship between Safa and Aisha, two British Asian girls from east London. “It’s about how extremes can affect two normal people,” she says. “I didn’t think anyone would be interested in putting it onstage.” Now Spun is set to debut at the Arcola Theatre in June as part of a spring programme which has so far featured work from Mike Bartlett and Will Self.
Last May, Hussain was invited to meet Richard Speir, an assistant producer at the Arcola, after Spun narrowly missed out on theatre’s annual new writing festival. Hussain thought they were there to discuss the theatre’s development programme for BAME artists, but about 20 minutes into the conversation she realised that Speir wanted to direct her play. “There was still a bit of a hesitancy to ask him,” she says. “What if I’m wrong?” It was Speir who finally had to ask her. Even then the pair didn’t realise the play would be performed in just over a year’s time.
Despite a bad night’s sleep and the bags under her eyes to prove it, Hussain, 33, is a fast talker whose measured delivery masks the passion behind her words. You could easily be distracted by her habit of gazing into the distance while fidgeting with her sleeves and miss her powerfully worded opinions on everything from gentrification to microaggressions. It’s no surprise that she moonlights as a comment writer for The Huffington Post and feminist online magazine The F Word. She has found, however, that the immersive, character-driven nature of theatre is a more powerful tool for changing perceptions than the echo chamber of online news.
Hussain has been writing Spun on and off for nine years, originally submitting a few scenes to London’s Royal Court theatre to apply for a playwriting programme back in 2009. Since then she’s been juggling a career in freelance digital marketing around an increasing number of short plays, monologues and writing programmes, always keeping Spun in the back of her mind. “I’ve wanted to write it for a really long time but haven’t quite managed to,” she says. “It’s a bit cathartic for me and quite emotionally draining.”
It’s clearly a personal play. Like Safa and Aisha, Hussain hails from Newham, east London. She grew up in Forest Gate surrounded by aunts, uncles, cousins and “a community of working class immigrant families”. In Spun, Aisha stays in Newham while Safa moves to work in central London and struggles to fit in. Hussain took the latter path and found herself catapulted into an unfamiliar white, middle class working environment. The play hinges around a terrorist attack, a plot point Hussain was initially reluctant to include due to the assumptions she’d encountered about Asian writers. For this she drew on her memories of the 7/7 bombings.
She was in her final year of university when it happened. “It had a huge impact on the way I saw London and the way I saw myself,” she says. She felt ostracised by an increasing number of racist remarks at work. “It was like I had to become more like the people I worked with in order to be normal.” On one occasion she remembers receiving a Christmas present from an Asian colleague; someone joked: “I hope there’s no bomb in there”. “I would hear those kinds of comments and I would try and distance myself from the perceptions that people automatically had of me,” she says.
Spun is about place too. Hussain feels the diversity and complexity of London has never been fully recognised onstage. There have been plays set in working class communities, but never quite the sense of the proximity of affluence and poverty, of different cultures rubbing shoulders on the same streets. A couple of years ago Hussain made her first visit to her parents’ country. Walking into a supermarket in Karachi, Pakistan, she felt like she was back in east London. “It felt completely surreal,” she says. “The shops look exactly the same.” Spun hopes to capture how moving around London can sometimes feel like moving between different worlds.
Hussain has many more sleepless nights ahead of her. A self-confessed perfectionist, she says she’ll probably keep writing until press night. She’s the first to admit that we still have a long way to go before reaching true diversity in theatre, but Spun is a symptom that we’re moving in the right direction.
Spun will play at the Arcola Theatre from 27 June to 28 July