"it is really important for us to look at how gay people are treating ethnic minorities"
Shafeeq Shajahan has made waves with his daring new production, Submission.
The play blends spoken word, naturalism and physical theatre to tell the story of young gay British Asian man, Sameer.
Through his tale, Shafeeq addresses the issues and experiences of many different communities as well as portraying a very human relationship.
Ethnically South Indian, born in Malaysia and a UCL graduate, Shafeeq also offers a fascinating insight into balancing different communities, languages and labels through the arts.
He is the co-founder of the international theatre company, Liver and Lung Productions. Alongside co-founder Hannah Shields, the company writes musicals and plays.
As Shafeeq explains: “We’re very focused on championing the voices of the unheard, integrating oriental traditions and ideologies in Western frameworks.”
DESIblitz speaks with Shajahan in detail to find out more about his challenging piece Submission and LGBT+ representation in theatre.
Submission uses spoken word in a very powerful way – why choose it as a medium for theatre?
I’ve always been a director, first and foremost. That’s my passion. If I was to do my masters, I would do it in directing.
But I’m just interested in storytelling and whatever the best way is to tell a story, that’s what I’ll pursue.
In this case, it was spoken word. It fits very well in the East London/South London, British Pakistani lexicon. It was very cool and fun to combine that with very Koranic translations and poetry.
It’s kind of like rap. If we were to expand it or put more productions on, of Submission, we would make it kind of more like rap, or grime.
The artistry of putting on a show comes quite naturally to me. I’m really excited by that, I’m always trying to find something new and this was just different as it was so personal. The production and the blocking and the lights and the sound was quite natural to me.
Submission balances poetry and everyday conversation. Do you feel like your background brings a more relatable language to theatre?
A lot of shows kind of do that, take the East London lexicon and make the East London lexicon sound poetic, sound Shakespearean, it’s really cool. There’s a lot of stuff like that.
But it’s funny you say that, as English is not my first language. I always say things really weirdly. I’ll say phrases or idioms in a not very common way and people always make fun of me.
I’ve kind of just said fuck it. It’s kind of worked. A lot of very fluent English speakers have come up to me and said, ‘Oh yeah, your writing’s really cool’.
I don’t have the natural flow of a native English speaker. I think for me, writing is a bit more of a process. Sometimes I’m very aware that some people think that my writing is very contrived. Like my metaphors are a bit forced.
One of the reviews that came out, it wasn’t a very nice review, said ‘very forced metaphors’. I think that’s just the way… if an English person were to read a Tagore poem or an Indian poem, they’d find the metaphors really forced – that’s just our culture.
How does your writing process work?
I always think of it as: what kind of emotional response am I trying to get out of the audience? And then I work a lot on rhythm. I like to see… I think about how it’s heard.
“Again, I think that’s a very Indian thing, I grew up with Bollywood. I think musicality is a very big part of the way I create art. I always think of my theatre like a Bollywood film.”
Looking back on it – from Devdas and South Indian films – to this day, those influences will still creep in.
I don’t normally think of language as a combination of words. I think about language as a music.
Are you looking to develop Submission?
Yes, very much so. I hate the idea that theatre is finite. I really want to keep working on things, making them better.
I’m very aware that Submission is great right now but has a lot of shortcomings.
I always want to talk to more people, talk to producers and see if they’re interested in the narrative and I’m interested in the narrative, what kind of magic can we create together.
How do you feel balancing two communities – LGBT and British Asian – in Submission?
I think it comes from a very personal space. I’ve always been very interested in combining, or paralleling, the ecstasy of spirituality with the ecstasy of sexuality. For me, the high you receive when you pray is very similar to the high you receive when you have sex.
It’s something that’s always been quite natural for me, so I wanted to, in a very shocking way with this play, I wanted to put it in people’s faces. There is a space where it works.
I think that Sameer ends up a bit mad, not because he couldn’t find solace between being gay and being Muslim, but because the rejection he faced from both the Islamic and the gay communities.
Do you think one of these communities has contributed more to Sameer’s sense of rejection?
I think why I wrote this in the first place, it’s based on the Orlando Pulse shooting, I hint towards it at the end.
I read this article about the guy who did it and apparently, his Grindr date came out to the public and said all he really wanted to do was cuddle in bed.
He was a closeted gay guy who was married to a woman and all he wanted to do was be gay. It kind of broke my heart. Obviously, the American government refuses to acknowledge that he was gay, but he definitely was, I think.
Why I think it was so profound, the Orlando shooting, yes it was a Muslim issue, but I think it’s more a gay issue. He did that because of the rejection he faced in the gay community as much as the terrorist narrative that America shoves down our throats.
Yes, obviously it is a Muslim issue, Islam has not been kind to homosexual people and it will not be kind to homosexual people. But it is really important for us to look at how gay people are treating ethnic minorities.
Do you think people oversimplify these issues without realising about intersectionality?
Exactly, it’s so complex. I think the way is play is done, it’s done well in the sense that, ‘Oh, it’s a gay Muslim play’.
That’s been a constant struggle for us, from a branding perspective, from a production perspective.
Yes, it’s a gay Muslim play but it’s so much more than that. He’s such a complex character. I think that’s so indicative of how white people and the government view issues like this, it’s so much more complex than it seems.
Do you think your international viewpoint has benefitted your work?
I identify more with being Indian than being Malaysian, that was just the way I was brought up.
I think that’s what the theatre scene in the UK needs more of.
“When theatre addresses diversity in the UK, I find it very fabricated, very plastic, very tick boxing. There isn’t any listening or understanding of true Asian or international values.”
So I think the fact that we have a very British person, Hannah – she’s from Yorkshire – who’s gone through being a Northerner and being a woman in a very southern context.
She understands what it is to be overcoming struggle and to have me, who’s Indian. It’s a good partnership. We understand the struggles.
From where we come from, we come together for genuine theatre that hopefully speaks to lots of people.
What would signal a proper change in British theatre for you?
I think we need more representation. The world views identity politics and minorities rights as this is a box that needs to be ticked, we’ve filled this box.
But I think the fix for problems come from the root. We need more minorities on theatre boards, or as queer characters. We need more females or queers. From a genuine place, not just a campaign.
What do you think of the current state of representation? Do you think that sometimes it ebbs and flows?
It’s becoming good, it’s becoming really nice. It’s becoming so much more supportive. I wouldn’t say it’s a good time to be a queer person of colour, as it’s never a good time to be a queer person. But it’s getting better and that’s very nice.
I think it ebbs and flows, that’s exactly right, I think you’ve put it so well. Whenever the National Theatre or all these theatres say, ‘We want BAME artists’, I don’t buy any of it because I know it’s not sustainable.
I don’t think they’re genuinely interested, they’re doing it a very fabricated way. I don’t trust it. Like now you want us but five years, you’re going to forget us and go onto the next big trend.
Do you find it limiting when people use labels?
I don’t find it limiting. My star, Shiv, he’s quite against labelling it as a gay, Muslim play. He thinks it’s first and foremost about a human relationship.
But I quite like calling it a gay, Muslim play. I’ve worked so hard to create a space where I can talk about gay Muslim issues because no one else wants to talk about those issues.
It’s a very weird dilemma for me. Do I make the show more mass appealing, brand it as a human relationship – which it is – or do I maintain this space?
It is a protest speech. I want people to know that it’s a gay, Muslim play.
Have you felt the pressure from other people to mask these labels?
Yeah when I’ve been selling the show as a gay Muslim show, other people have been like, ‘Ahhh…a gay Muslim show?’
So people have been advising me to sell it as a new drama with a human relationship. But that makes me feel like – that’s not what it is?
Do you find it quite hard to keep that integrity to yourself?
Of course. I think the difficulty with our journey has been that white people and majorities want to talk about these issues for five minutes, they don’t want to hear it for an hour.
“They don’t want to buy a ticket to watch the show, it’s not their story, which is really upsetting.”
Obviously, you get some people who are allies, who come up and want to hear and have received it so positively. But most people are not like that.
So yes, it is about diluting your show and making it mass, so that everyone listens to it and everyone can take something away from it.
What do you think of works including narratives from British Asians, people of colour and/or the LGBT+ community, from people who are not a part of those communities?
I don’t like that. It’s like even when we talk about these issues, why do you have to dominate the conversation?
That’s why I think the most important part of being an ally is just to listen, because every time you’re talking, you’re dominating the conversation. It’s more genuine when it comes from our mouths.
It’s the same thing with all these theatres doing BAME, is it actually a minority voice that’s being emancipated, or [are] you just using us as a gimmick?
Do you find it freeing to talk about issues in these communities?
Yes, for sure. It’s therapy every day. I put all my insecurities in a narrative and I’ve kind of owned it. Spat in everyone’s faces. That’s my way of going, ‘F*** you’.
Do you think plays are a way to begin reclaiming the language used to label or attack?
Yes, that’s what I try to do, I try to take these traditionally very white phrases and make them spicy.
It’s decolonising – ‘decolonise and moisturise’.
But can trying to decolonise language only go so far and labels still working against us? What is it on Grindr – ‘no spice, no rice…’?
Yeah, or, ‘No fats, no femmes or no Asians’. I hate it. ‘Oh it’s not racist, it’s just a preference’. No, it is.
You might think it’s a preference, but it’s a preference that’s conditioned by racist structures in society.
That kind of imbalance is ridiculous and it’s even more pervasive in the queer subculture.
Do you find that there’s too much responsibility on us as British Asians, as people of colour, as members of the LGBT+ community to combat these labels, improve representation, talk about the issues we face?
I think the burden… it’s not a burden actually, it’s a privilege.
I was having a debate with someone – it was a forum on race – and I was talking about how there was Bin Laden: The One Man Show. He’s toured America and he’s had something really sensationalised and received good reviews.
I was like, ‘It’s so easy for you to do that as you’re a white, straight, middle-class boy. If I was to do something like that and that I am doing, with Submission, toured Malaysia or America, that would put me in a lot of danger. But you just get away with it because you’re white.’
Then some stupid woman on the panel was like, ‘Oh, it’s fine that white people do it first because they pave the way. At least, we’re still talking about your issues.’ And for me, I was like, ‘Why do white people have to talk about my issues, why can’t I talk about my own issues?’
So like yeah maybe it is, you can view it as a burden or a responsibility for us to keep having to talk about our issues.
Like Mindy Kaling always says, ‘But why am I always an Indian, female comedian?’ But I don’t like to think like that. It’s wearing your badge with pride, it’s such an honour. That’s why it’s so hard for me not to label Submission as a gay, Muslim play because that’s what it is to me.
“It means so much, I’ve worked so hard to be proud of these labels, why should I mask them?”
And why should he indeed? Shafeeq Shajahan’s Submission is a fantastic play regardless of whether you describe it as a ‘gay, Muslim play’, about a human relationship or perhaps something else.
With Submission, Liver and Lung Productions have brought a groundbreaking piece to modern British theatre. This thought-provoking work pushes audiences to confront the reality of representation on the stage and the off-stage issues addressed.
We look forward to seeing where Shafeeq Shajahan and Hannah Shields take the tale of Sameer and Daniel next.