Review: Coconut and The “D” Word at Ovalhouse Theatre
Review by E Okobi, MSc Applied Psychology in Fashion, London College of Fashion.
Coconut, a play by Guleraana Mir opens with Rumi (Kuran Dohil), a twenty-something British Muslim woman meeting cute in a bar with Catholic Simon (Jimmy Carter) moments after she has fled a disastrous Halal speed-dating event. After a round of flirtatious banter it becomes clear that Simon is just Rumi’s type–and vice versa. The two quickly fall headlong into a romance that Rumi feels compelled to hide from her family’s prying eyes. Rumi’s skittishness leads Simon to question her commitment, and the couples’ burgeoning bond is strained by the seemingly insurmountable barrier of religious belief. When Simon is left reeling from his mother’s death, Rumi’s suggests that he convert to Islam so that they can openly date and eventually marry. The proposal appeals to Simon in a way that it never had before and he agrees. Rumi’s parents are pleased, and the couple marries, however their happily ever after is marred by Simon’s zeal for his newfound faith and community.
The play has been praised for defying stereotypes and creating new roles for BAME actors.
Coconut was produced by The Thelmas, a duo committed to telling and showcasing stories by and about marginalised identities. The Thelmas consists of Mir and her creative partner Madeleine Moore (who directed the play). The performance run included three after show talkbacks on the themes of inclusion. The second talkback, entitled ‘50 Shades of Representation – How do we move past the ‘d’ word?’ (the “d” word being “diversity”) was held Saturday 21 of April, and moderated by Tobi Kyeremateng a producer and activist.
The panelists were Janet Baker a campaigner for the Women’s Equality Party, Ovalhouse Theatre Learning & Participation Manager Titilola Dawudu, writer Vinay Patel, arts and culture critic Victoria Sadler, and Clarissa Widya, who co-founded Papergang Theatre to support the work of emerging East Asian British talent.
Kyeremateng opened the discussion by asking each panelist to answer the following question: “Why are stories needed?” Many of the responses touched on the importance of culture and community, with Dawudu summing them up by stating that “story is power”. Kyeremateng then asked panelists “When or where was the first time you saw a representation of yourself [onscreen or in the media]?” Patel spoke of his first encounter with The Good Immigrant, a book of essays compiled by writer Nikesh Shukla, and how its publication felt like a contemporary coda to the Nineties British sketch comedy show Goodness Gracious Me, which featured an almost entirely Asian cast.
“I watched something with my grandparents and laughed, and then went to school and laughed about the same show with my classmates,” Patel stated, adding that the shows creators were disappointed that its success did not translate into greater on screen representation for BAME actors and creators.
“I still haven’t seen that.” was Dawudu’s response she then described going to see a production of Othello at the National featuring Adrian Lester’s critically acclaimed performance in the title role, and of reading the work of Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, “…but these weren’t my stories.” She is still waiting for a story by and/or about a Black African British woman that resonates with her. Dawudu’s comment sparked conversation about the precise meaning of representation. It was noted that much of the “BAME” work currently on offer in the UK is by and about Black writers from the United States–specifically Black Male writers. “What is the sound of Black women’s voice in the arts?” Dawudu mused. Widya pointed out that many of the “BAME” plays featured nearly segregated casts, either “…all East Asian or all Black, they can’t just ‘be’ we can’t be as diverse onstage or onscreen as we are in real life. Look at this room, it’s not all one person.’
Sadler confessed that the current data left her pessimistic about theatres ability to represent the country’s diversity anytime soon. “Theatre is still a White man’s game…” She notes that plays with predominantly non-White characters are given labels such as “multicultural”, “BAME”, “diverse” and “Black” while plays with predominantly White characters are simply “plays”. Conversation turned to the immense pressure that many BAME artists feel to be perfect all the time. “There’s no room for you to be a bit rubbish [but] there is plenty of White rubbish out there.” Baker said. Both Baker and Sadler remarked that as White women, they felt it was important to be allies. “I believe that I as a White person have a responsibility to shout up–rather than leave it to be the burden for women of colour”. She then spoke about the enormous and often invisible power wielded by the boards of arts organisations, adding that this was why she believed in quotas, as unpopular as they can be.
In discussing equitable strategies for inclusion, Wideya said that BAME artists must do a better job of supporting each other, rather than competing for their token piece of the pie, a statement with which Dawudu agreed, “I say there is space for everyone at the table” she talked the cutthroat world of television production that she came from, one in which many of the BAME creatives she encountered viewed her as a threat because they subscribed to the view of tokenism. She praised the theatre folks she describes as far more supportive and generous with information about funding and casting opportunities “We have to stop waiting for White people to give us a rung up the ladder [and instead just support each other]”.