“I’m interested in fucking up the dominant and racist narratives around communities of colour.” Bradford-born writer, theatre-maker and director Javaad Alipoor certainly does not mince his words. His new play, The Believers Are But Brothers opened at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and is transferring for a run at the Bush Theatre to kick off its 2018 season. It’s a performance that examines the crisis of masculinity swirling around young, misguided men and how digital culture swallows these men whole. The show also deals with a taboo topic for traditionally left-leaning, liberal theatre goers: radicalization.
Javaad’s reckoning with the topic seeks to cut through the noise which defines the conversation around radicalisation, and invariably ends up maligning entire communities. He wrote the play to challenge the “war on terror ideology of there being something specifically wrong with Islam, or that this is a ‘Muslim’ problem. You don’t have to be a foaming at the mouth Islamophobe, you can be a liberal Islamophobe as well.”
Muslim artists have attempted to address the subject of radicalisation through theatre before. Omar El-Khairy and Nadia Latif’s play, Homegrown was abruptly shut down in 2015 by the National Youth Theatre with artistic director, Paul Roseby citing reasons of ‘safeguarding’ of their ‘young cohort members’. The decision sparked outrage. More worryingly, it sent a message to theatre-makers and Muslim artists more broadly, your work will be censored if the establishment deem it too threatening.
Prevent, the Government’s counter-radicalisation act draws on similar language of ‘safe-guarding’ as a means to shut down debate. The act makes it a statutory duty for teachers (and others in public institutions) to spot signs of radicalisation, and if necessary refer students to an anti-radicalisation programme called Channel. Teachers are advised to observe children who ‘display concerning behaviour’ but guidance on this is vague. Much like the British Transport police’s ‘See it, Say it, Sort it’ campaign, plenty is left to our own racialized prejudices of what constitutes ‘concerning behaviour.’
As a youth and community officer who once worked on a Prevent-funded programme, Javaad Alipoor saw the first hand effects of how the policy started “criminalising people.” National campaigns have been launched to rally against the policy which is said to impinge on the rights of young Muslims to fully express themselves in public settings. In many ways, Javaad’s exploration of the online sphere underlines what happens when young people feel like they have no voice. If policies like Prevent exacerbate the feeling of alienation British Muslim’s feel, how exactly do youth on the margins fight back? “When you look at the Muslim community, some of the most politically active, socially engaged, culturally turned on young people you meet are educated, working class, lower middle class Muslims.” Javaad asserts. “If you want to organise a protest for EU migrants, who do you ring? You ring the very same, educated Hijabi women who organise Palestine Solidarity protests.”
Too often, plays have been written about Muslim communities, rather than by Muslim artists themselves. For Javaad Alipoor, “it’s about being the subject of your own narrative”. It’s telling, then, that over the last year so many collectives lead by Muslim artists have emerged. These collectives have forged spaces for narratives which rarely reach the mainstream: from OOMK, to Numbi Arts to my own group, Khidr Collective.
The Believers Are But Brothers isn’t fixated on one type of radicalisation. It also explores the toxic culture fostered by the anonymity of 4Chan and Reddit. The ‘wounded masculinity’, as Javaad describes it, of white men forthrightly rallying against political correctness and expressing a cultural anxiety which has become close to mainstream in political discourse today. “What’s not being talked about is how some of the stuff affecting a reactionary young Muslim is affecting a certain young, reactionary anything you want” he explains.
The performance requires the audience to join a WhatsApp group during the show. This unusual form of audience participation points to what Javaad hopes to illuminate through the show, which is that the interaction between international events and digital culture hits closer to home than we think. “At the heart of what I talk about in the show is Syria, and the failure of the Syrian revolution but it never gets named. But everything that happens is affected by that. I’m of the belief that lot of the shit driving history forward is happening in the Global South.”
Speaking to Javaad, it’s clear from his activism, writing and theatre-making that he’s unafraid of truth-telling. The question of audiences and diverse audiences in theatre is a topic which brings lot of talk but little action. As someone who grew up working class in Bradford, it’s something that’s close to his heart. He describes theatre’s inability to keep up in an age people have an “international sense of culture” from “HBO dramas to African American music” whereas “theatres in the main, spend the vast majority of their production and marketing budget chasing the same audiences they’ve had forever.” It’s a scathing but honest assessment of the times. A report by Audience Agency in 2016 identified that the average age of a theatre goer was 52, with that set to ‘considerably rise’ over the next decade.
There is certainly a long way to go to systemically change perceptions of theatre. A lot of young, marginalised artists find themselves creating art outside of powerful art institutions, which limits the reach of their work, but in some ways that has its advantages. Javaad explains how the stark lack of arts funding in West Yorkshire has paved the way for a renegade arts scene. “In the 90s, you had this amazing moment where mega confident South Asian musicians emerged like Aki Nawaz and Fun-De-Mental.” Today, in a similar vein, a whole new generation of artists like Javaad have emerged to provoke the broadly monocultural theatre scene. “You’ve got a place like, Theatre in the Mill, I’ve done work there, Selina Thompson’s done some work there and RashDash. In Leeds there’s a space called Live Art Bistro which has been a catalyst for people like Jamal Gerald.”
Javaad’s own path into theatre-making began at the Asian Theatre School which was being run by the now Artistic Director of Bush Theatre, Madani Younis. As a house and techno DJ and youth and community worker, he hadn’t envisioned a career in theatre. But the experience at the Asian Theatre School and Freedom Studios gave Javaad the space to write, direct and hone his skills. “I met Madani and I found out through him there was a way of making a living through this.” Since then, his shows have examined everything from the Bradford Chartist uprisings in The Rising of the Moon to the story of Iranian singer and poet Fereydoun Farrokhzad in My Brothers Country. This month’s transfer of The Believers Are But Brothers will be the first time his work has been seen in London.
Javaad’s journey into the arts shows that your trajectory in to the arts needn’t start in London, and it certainly isn’t the only place where radical theatre-making is taking place. But what can we do to ensure that there aren’t just a few exceptional people of colour breaking through? “When anyone gets into those positions, they need to hold the door open for others.”
The Believers Are But Brothers is on at Bush Theatre until February 10th, 2018. Book tickets here.