"It’s heartwarming to see a brown boy humanised"
Brown Boys Swim, winner of the prestigious Popcorn Award and The Scotsman’s Fringe First Award, is a compelling creation of the talented writer Karim Khan.
As a member of the Soho Six 2023/2024 and the recipient of Riz Ahmed’s Left Handed Films and Pillars Fund inaugural fellowship, Khan weaves a captivating narrative that transcends the boundaries of the stage.
Brown Boys Swim is not just a play; it’s a lyrical and poignant exploration of the pressures weighing on young Muslim men today.
The play introduces us to Kashif Ghole (Mohsen) and Ibraheem Hussain (Kash), both making their debut in this groundbreaking show.
The comical, witty, impactful and poignant show looks at the challenges they face, as the best friends attempt to attend the biggest pool party of the year.
As we dive into their roles and the intricacies of the production, we also embark on a journey with the characters, who, fuelled by halal Haribo and chicken wings, bravely confront cramped cubicles and cold showers.
The waters they navigate become a metaphor for the challenges faced by South Asian communities – where microaggressions signify something more insidious.
In this exclusive chat, we spoke to Ibraheem and Kashif about the play, their roles, and why the story of Brown Boys Swim was so tempting.
What appealed to you about the character of Mohsen?
What appealed to me about Mohsen was his three-dimensionality, his sensitivity, determination and care.
But also his flaws, his stubbornness and at times arrogance.
I feel there are a number of different themes running through Karim’s wonderfully written play.
However, the one that resonated with me instantly on a gut level was the one of “fitting in”.
It’s something every single human being goes through, and it’s heartwarming to see a brown boy humanised on stage in that way.
How does Mohsen and Kash’s journey reflect society?
I think the two characters’ journeys are different in the sense that Mohsen fights against stereotypes and expectations from people outside his family and community.
Whilst Kash, I think, struggles more with expectations from his “own people” aka Mohsen.
“When it comes to swimming, Mohsen is more sensitive to the way people look at him.”
They make him feel like he doesn’t belong in the pool, whereas on the surface, it doesn’t faze Kash.
Over the course of the play, they become aware of the way they are stereotyped, and how it’s affecting them and they try their best to let go of the expectations that are unfairly placed on them.
How did you personally connect with the play?
There have been many times and I’m sure there will be more, throughout my life where I have felt excluded from places, specifically because of the colour of my skin or my faith.
For me, it’s important not to look back on my experiences and let them cause me to wallow in painful emotions.
So, I’ve gotten really good at seeing the experiences for what they were, they’ve brought me to where I am today, and I try my best to let them go.
I’ve become more attuned to noticing when I feel excluded now, and I either remove myself from the situation or voice how I feel, that’s all I can do really.
Can you describe your creative process for the character?
When I first read it there were parts of his journey, that as an actor I was a little daunted by.
But very quickly I let go of the fear and allowed myself to open up.
To be more specific, a lot of Mohsen’s experience (not all) is very close to my own, so in a way, his emotions are just my emotions, I hope that makes sense.
“I have an emotional depth already, everyone does, I just had to be willing to show it on stage.”
And I really couldn’t have done any of this without John Hoggarth (our director), Kashif (the actor), and an already moving script.
Have the show’s awards impacted your approach to the play?
It didn’t really impact my approach to the play at all, to be honest.
Over the years at drama school, I tried my best to cultivate the habit of approaching work as work, separate from what people think or awards etc, although it can be difficult at times.
But it’s important for me to not take what everyone thinks as objective truth, whether that be an award or a negative review, that’s just someone else’s subjective truth.
It’s great when the show really lands with people and they love it or maybe it receives an award.
But it’s important, for me, to keep reminding myself of the more important reasons to share this story and to just have FUN.
How does ‘Brown Boys Swim’ resonate with your journey as an actor?
When I first read the play there were parts of both characters that really resonated with my own experience.
Mohsen’s determination and sensitivity, especially when I was younger, I was very shy and felt safe at home in my own community.
“Kash resonates way more with me at where I am now in life, very open and with a hunger for adventure.”
One of my biggest aspirations as an actor is to tell stories, that humanise and give a voice to people who look like me, or have the same faith.
Whilst doing that, I want to remind audiences that underneath the colour of your skin, sexuality or who you bow your head to etc, we’re all the same.
What drew you to this particular play and the character of Kash?
In the beginning, it wasn’t Kash that I was driven to, it was actually Mohsen.
I just felt like he made sense and had an appropriate reaction to a lot of the difficult situations they faced, so in general, I appreciated him.
I kept reading and continued to make discoveries and then I started to appreciate Kash way more.
It made me realise Kash is brave and meets adversities head-on.
He doesn’t back down from whatever he wants in life, even if people like him are told they can’t do something.
He’s got a strong spirit and a truly thick skin, which he hides in his humour.
One of the challenges I faced when going through this process was the fact that it’s only two characters and I’m one of them.
So the amount of lines to learn was something I hadn’t done before.
Another challenge was that I’d have to stay away from home for so long and stay away from my family.
How does learning how to swim symbolise a larger narrative?
Quite a lot of brown people that I know in general can’t swim and there’s no actual set reasoning behind it.
We eventually learn it in our later years.
For me, I think it was the fact I could look around when I was younger and see that I wasn’t as good as my peers.
“But later on in my life, I gained the confidence to try harder.”
Another reason may be that we don’t always feel the most comfortable in swimming pools because of the eyes on us.
I think Kash rises up to these challenges regardless of what and how he can be affected by his environment.
If he can physically continue to do whatever he wants to, nothing else matters.
How did you approach portraying certain challenges on stage?
I think it was about being open about our own experiences of being in the situations as the situations in the play.
I won’t go out and say every brown person has faced the same hardships because everyone has a different experience of being brown.
Like I said before, I’m more like Mohsen in real life but in order to be like Kash, I would have to try to understand why he was naïve to these microaggressions.
Honestly, it’s all about not caring and just being rebellious enough to do whatever you want to do, no matter who feels what way.
Playing someone like that on stage makes you forget it’s a challenge and instead, becomes fun.
What experiences did you draw upon to connect with your character?
I could see myself in both of these characters.
While Mohsen is a bit more cold, calculated and antisocial, he’s just one of the ways I am.
“Kash on the other hand is bold, outspoken, braver, and more social.”
So in order for me to get to that energy, I’d just draw that energy from myself.
How does the critical acclaim influence your perspective on the show?
That only made me feel as if I just needed to do better than what I did last in drama school.
It made me feel happy to be a part of a play like this, that has such a unique story, that many other brown people can relate to and find joy in watching.
Honestly, it made me happy to know and to perform, and that people are actually enjoying this story.
Through these conversations with Kashif Ghole and Ibraheem Hussain, the brilliance they bring to Brown Boys Swim becomes even more evident.
The play, a profound exploration of identity, resilience, and the courage to embrace authenticity in a world rife with challenges resonates with all audiences.
On a national sold-out tour, Brown Boys Swim is redefining the theatrical landscape and bringing more diverse stories to the forefront.
Find out more about Brown Boys Swim here.