Interview with Iskandar Sharazuddin

Silently Hoping, a play which looks at what it means to come from a mixed cultural heritage, opens at the Applecart Arts this week. I spoke with award-winning playwright Iskandar Sharazuddin to find out more about his latest play.

Can you tell me about Silently Hoping?
Yes, sure. Silently Hoping is a new play about belonging, heritage, and relationships. There are lots of relationships in the play, one between a mixed-race Southeast Asian-British woman and her mother, who is an Islamic convert. There is a queer love between two women where one of them secretly struggles with her commitment because of her faith. There is a relationship between two working-class Black-British sisters whose paths diverge when they are younger due to a difference in their sense of self. There is an examination of an older generation love where the trauma has outlived the relationship between a conservative Asian man and a white British woman and on the flipside a younger generation love between a young man and a woman who have never plucked up the courage to tell each other that they love one another.

At the centre of these relationships is Kalila. She’s a Londoner, she’s British-Asian, she’s a millennial, she’s fallen in love with a woman, and she’s a Muslim. But what does all that mean and what does she really want? And is it too late to figure that out?

What prompted you to write this play?
At a time where identity is a word and a conversation at the front of global politics, polemical language, national divisions and social awareness, this is a play that tussles with what it means to belong to somewhere or something. It’s a play that intersects with faith, class, and sexual identities as a bunch of characters muddy the waters of their own lives by crashing into one another. I wrote it because it’s happening. All around me. I also wrote it because it is me. I am a mixed-race Southeast Asian-British person that has felt disconnected from both sides of my cultural heritage. I wrote it because less and less do I want to see a homogenised theatre that is predominantly white middle-class, male, able-bodied, and cis-gendered but I want to stress, this isn’t a box-ticking activity for me. This feels heavily drawn from my life and the life of those around me. It feels authentic and knotty like the lives of my friends and family. I wrote it for them.

How did you get into theatre?
When I was at school in Quinton, Birmingham in the West Midlands, I saw a puppet show of the Snow Queen. I remember it was terrifying. Properly terrifying. At the time, I don’t think I appreciated how much that experience imprinted on me. Later when I was 14 or 15 I joined a youth theatre company, mainly to build confidence and make friends but I was drawn to theatre rather than sport, I think because my experience of theatre was (like many) one of community hall pantomimes and school puppet shows but also one where I felt things, really felt things. I felt scared during the Snow Queen, I laughed during pantomimes and while I may not have total recall on those experiences I do remember, very clearly, the emotional impact. I think when I was 14 and 15, somewhere deep down inside (definitely not surface level) there was a part of me that thought the idea I could feel things and make other people feel things was kind of bloody magical.

What inspires your writing?
A lot of things is the short answer. This year I have written two plays that are heavily drawn from my own life. I have excavated material from my past and vomited it up onto the page to then break apart, mould, and wrestle into a dramatic form.

I write a lot of plays based on historical figures or events that have gone unnoticed or been left out of the history pages for one reason or another. I like to write a lot about Southeast Asia, especially at a time where I have been trying to understand more about myself and my heritage. I also ape better writers than me, in the hopes that I’ll somehow uncover the secret formula to their success. I have a lot of writers I go to for inspiration. My bookshelf in my flat is mainly plays.

What would you like the play to achieve?
That is a big question. I want the play to exist. Unapologetically. This play has been a hard and long road. It began as a 20-minute piece which was staged at the Arcola Theatre for the Miniaturists, then it was a 60-minute piece at VAULT Festival this year, now it is nearly two hours long (with an interval). I have kept developing it, crafting it, honing it, and the stages of sharing it have been crucial and fundamental to my learning. The thing about being a playwright is there is so much damn pressure to get it right the first time and that is so, so, so hard. With this play, I haven’t got it right straight away and that is because it’s such a complex twist of lives and thoughts, and I might still not have got it right but the only way I can figure that out is to put it on and see what works. So firstly. I want it to exist. That is enough of an achievement, for me.

The bigger answer to that question though, is that, of course, I want it to impact people. I want it to encourage people to question their own sense of self and the world around them. I want it to be representative in a way that feels genuine and respectful but also challenges pervasive and damaging stereotypes. I always want my plays to ask questions and spark conversations. Is that too much to ask?

Silently Hoping will run at Applecart Arts from Wednesday 27 – Saturday 30 November 2019.

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