Plays to check out by Black and Asian British playwrights
Sucker Punch by Roy Williams
Sucker Punch, by Roy Williams, is a play about boxing and the black experience in 1980s Britain. Featuring four black characters and three white characters, the play centers around Leon Davidson, a black British boxing champion, and Troy Augustus, a black American powerhouse. They both grew up in the same boxing gym, trying to gain the favoritism of their white trainer, Charlie Maggs. Boxing is the one thing that helps these two boys face up to who they are. Troy ends up rebelling and gets kicked out of the gym by Charlie. He moves to the United States, where he gains a new boxing reputation. Leon begins to sleep with Charlie’s daughter and is forced to pick between training at the gym or Charlie’s daughter. He chooses training and tries to become a part of the white community. Troy eventually returns with a new manager and a fake American accent. Troy and Leon are forced to fight once again. This play shows a lot of black characters being forced to blend in with white characters and learning how to act white instead of how they were born.
trade by debbie tucker green
trade by debbie tucker green features three black women who begin the play as three local women but as needed transform into the “Regular Tourist”, an older white woman, and the “Novel Tourist”, a younger white woman. The characters trade off between the personality they are portraying throughout the show which is likely designed to leave the viewer confused over the ideas of the differences between being a local and being a visitor. This theme is also what the play focuses on, as the women dispute with one another about their different opinions on what it means to be “there”(where the tourists are visiting and, the Local’s home) and “here” (elsewhere, the tourist home) and how their different experiences with this place signify who they are and the relationship they have (or allow each other to have) with the area. The Local woman complains about their ways of using her home as a place to act as someone other than who they are at home, the Tourists dispute about what the point of going on holiday is (experience of place or of people), and the Tourists pointing out to the Local that despite her annoyance with the Tourists she sells the local culture to them through the “local hairstyles at local prices” that she provides.
The play centers on the different women’s experiences of place and how they attempt to label and define each other’s abilities and allowed experiences within this place. The particular location of the island is not given but it is likely a Caribbean Island which the white women come to visit to experience something different from their normal lives. The Regular tourist visits the island and has come to see herself as a local, despite the fact she stays in expensive villas while she is there and doesn’t experience the actual lifestyle of locals. Due to this distinction, the local woman resents her for her defining of herself as a local. This play focuses on continued colonization today, as the white women bring themselves to this island to experience the amenities provided to tourists, even those provided by the locals who resent these rich tourists misusage of their home.
Sanctuary by Tanika Gupta
A sanctuary is a place of refuge and escape to find peace in a world full of chaos. In Tanika Gupta’s Sanctuary a group of familiar strangers come together to enjoy the peace of the a garden connected to the cemetery of a closing church. Two of the main characters, Michal and Kibar, spend their days in the cemetery of an old church maintaining and caring for the grounds.
Gone Too Far! by Bola Agbaje
Gone Too Far! is one of Bola Agbaje’s most well known plays. This piece is filled with undeniable truths that she does not try to sugar-coat for her readers, which is exactly why this play is so popular. It broadly describes how racial tension can tear apart a community and divide a brotherhood. Throughout the play, the two main characters– brothers Yemi and Ikudayisi– have internal battles with understanding their identity: they have a Nigerian background but reside in London. Initially, Yemi does not accept his background and Ikudayisi uses a fake American accent when talking to others. The crises they each face is later manifested through dialogue between two supporting characters, Armani and Paris.
While the brothers are out walking around the neighborhood, they see a few of their friends talking, including Armani and Paris. Before either brother could get a word in, Armani talks flippantly about them, and about Africa in general. She immediately gets shut down by her friend Paris though because of how offensive she was being. The two girls then begin arguing about who is really being racist and who is telling the truth. The audience quickly realize that Armani’s character and attitude is the personification of racism fueled by misinformation. After regurgitating all of her so-called truths to her friends, she is accused of being racist because she does not actually know anything about the history of slavery. She gets angry and wants to fight Paris, who she claims is actually the racist who cannot wrap her head around the truth that Armani is giving.
During this argument between the two girls, Armani refuses to listen to Paris when she tries to explain how incorrect she was in her argument. Armani does not want her truth to be challenged, so she attempts to turn the argument on Paris, claiming that she is actually the racist because of her hatred of white people. After the group of friends gets confused by the accusation that Paris is anything less than “the nicest person we know”, Paris explains to Armani that her opinions are problematic. She does not want to understand other perspectives on the matter of racism; she only absorbs information that supports her education on the matter because, as Paris explains, “…that’s what you want to hear”.
Gone Too Far! is an intense read that illustrates racism fueled by lack of education. The character of Armani has a fixed mindset, rooted in hatred of a place and a culture that she knows nothing about. Agbaje reminds her audience that racism is still alive and even thriving depending on the place. Yet, she also shows through the brothers’ relationship that this hatred and prejudice cannot suppress the power of culture.
Fix Up, by Kwame Kwei-Armah
Fix Up, tells a story about a bookstore that is in danger of being closed down by the lease owner to make room for a beauty parlor. There are only five characters in this play that are actually present in it, but they all play a crucial role in the play’s development. Brother Kiyi is the owner of the store and has been the owner in this neighborhood for many years.The play shows that Brother Kiyi and the bookstore have been under appreciated by the surrounding community, even with the book store’s important knowledge containing books that talk about black literature, culture, and politics. These are all pieces of information that the surrounding neighborhood would not have access to otherwise because of how difficult it is to material on these topics. Another important character is, a thirty four year old, named Alice. She goes to the store to to seek knowledge about her ethnic background and seems to be the one person that actually utilizes this bookstores importance. Another character is, a black activist, named Kwesi, who lives above the bookstore and often confronts the suspicions of other characters for the audience to learn about. Carl, a local care-in-the-community delivery boy, becomes friends with Brother Kiyi and in return is taught how to read so that he will be able to understand the importance of knowledge through books. The last important character is, Kiyi’s long time best friend named Norma. Norma seems to be the neighborhood’s leader and often the voice of reason. Norma spends time with Kiyi and in the end provides financial assistance to save the shop, but it ends up being too late. Each of these characters adds a different significance to this play that in the end helps show the audience how important history can be but how it is often looked over when the history involves a minority group in a larger society.
Talking in Tongues by Winsome Pinnock
Winsome Pinnock’s play Talking in Tongues illustrates the messiness and loneliness of relationships through the dialogue of two couples, Bentley and Leela, and Fran and Jeff; and of one woman, Claudette. In the beginning of the play, the scene opens on a house party. Two women, Claudette and her friend Curly, are of in a secluded room to tend to Claudette’s hurt ankle. Claudette takes this time to describe her hatred of men and how they only showed interest in her until a white woman came along. During her jealous and misandry-soaked rant, Curly tries to calm her down by talking about the power of her independence as a single woman. While their conversation continues, in another nearby room, characters Jeff and Bentley are reminiscing about their memories of college when their significant others, Fran and Leela enter the room, asking the boys to dance with them. After several minutes of arguing, they both concede; the scene ends as all characters hit the dancefloor.
After these first couple of scenes, the true nature of the couples unveils itself: Jeff cheats on Fran with Curly while Bentley cheats on Leela with Fran. These hook-ups seem so casually discussed, as if they have been occurring for a while. Bentley and Fran did not realize that the room they stumbled into to hook up was already occupied by Leela, Curly, and Claudette. After the deed was finished, both Bentley and Fran got dressed and returned to the party. Only a few hours later was everything laid out in front of everyone: both Jeff and Curly’s affair and Bentley and Fran’s affair were brought to light, severing all relationships the audience was initially introduced to.
The next scene opens to Claudette and Leela on a beach in the Bahamas where Claudette took Leela on a vacation so she could get away from her office job and her unfaithful ex-boyfriend. While on this trip, Leela seems to find herself on the island and exudes a brighter disposition, while Claudette strikes up an affair with one of the islanders. As has been the theme for this story though, this affair turns sour as her lover, Mikie, finds another tourist to spend his time with. This immediately sends Claudette back to the mood she felt when the audience was first introduced; she becomes angry at this man because she was, once again, no longer interesting when a white woman was in the picture. Later the same night, while her and Leela are drunkenly joking on the beach, they come across the woman that took Mikie away from Claudette, passed out in the sand due to a night of drinking. The two women vengefully joke about doing something to this woman for stealing the man, which eventually leads them to cut off a large lock of the woman’s hair, leaving it next to her and fleeing the scene. The next morning, all three women are at a beachside bar. Claudette leaves—due to the embarrassment she feels looking at the woman with a section of hair missing—Leela and the woman strike up a light conversation about exploring the island, concluding the play.
Talking in Tongues illustrates how difficult it can be for women, especially women of color, to live in their societal roles while still being in touch with their true selves. Leela’s character struggles to connect to her true self throughout the play; she is only able to do this by leaving her unfaithful husband, disloyal friend, and the pressures constantly exerted on her to finally get in touch with her emotions. Pinnock wonderfully illustrates how quickly people can lose control of their life and how this pain can be alleviated by focusing on the person’s own well-being.
Novels by Queer Black and Asian writers
Chiaroscuro by Jackie Kay
Jackie Kay’s first play, Chiaroscuro, was commissioned by the Theater of Black Women in 1985. It was first performed at London’s Soho Polytechnic in 1986. Chiaroscuro details how the friendship of four women in 1980s Britain is strengthened as they struggle with racism, sexism, and homophobia. The characters Aisha, Beth, Opal, and Yomi begin the play by announcing the origins of their names. The motif of names appears frequently throughout the play. Both personal names and labels given according to the characters’ sexuality or heritage weigh heavily on their personal identities and relationships with each other. Opal dislikes the term “lesbian” and refuses to let Aisha, Beth and Yomi use the word to define her, though she identifies as queer. Similarly, Beth lets Yomi know that calling her half-caste is derogatory and unacceptable, while still acknowledging that she is half black and half white. Kay’s play relies heavily on dialogue, character interactions, and the ability of the actors to create the illusion of props in its stark, grey setting. The women often mime their actions so the audience understands what they are supposed to be doing, but their actions do not take away from the dialogue which is to be focused on above all.
Throughout Chiaroscuro, Kay challenges notions of the intersections of sexuality, nationality, skin color, and familial structure. For example, Yomi is critical of the fact that Opal does not know her birth parents, yet Yomi is divorced and shares custody of her daughter with her husband. Yomi wants to impart her idea of a perfect family structure on Opal, yet her own life does not reflect her ideals. Opal, on the other hand, struggles with being black and gay, as though there is no room for both aspects of her identity in society. Opal says to the other women, “I can’t take myself seriously. I’ve gone through my life taking on new things. Now all of a sudden I’m a black lesbian? What is that? It’s a joke” (101). Kay draws attention to the fact that all the women have their own struggles that they work to overcome, though no one’s problems are greater or more important than anyone else’s. The women find that they must embrace each other’s differences in order to fix their own flaws, and help each other overcome adversity.
Kay, Jackie. “Chiaroscuro.” The Methuen Drama Book of Plays by Black British Writers. London: Methuen Drama, 2011. 59-117. Print.
Guapa by Saleem Haddad
Guapa by Saleem Haddad is a novel telling the story of a closeted gay man living in an unspecified Arab country during a time of protests reminiscent of the Arab Spring. The novel is told from the point of view of Rasa, a gay man who was educated in America and returns to his home country with grand ideas of leading the revolution to overthrow the theocratic authoritarian government. However, after his father dies, he and his grandmother lose their wealth, and Rasa ends up joining the worker class that he thought he could save and loses hope; he remarks, “all problems seem more exotic when they belong to another” (Haddad).
Rasa finds solace after returning to his home country in Guapa, a gay dive bar, where he meets his lover Taymour. He and Taymour begin a relationship and are together for three years, ever careful to hide their love from those around them on pain of death. The novel opens with Rasa’s traditional, conservative grandmother discovering him and Taymour together, and follows Rasa throughout one day of going about his life as an interpreter and contemplating his best course of action now that his grandmother knows the truth about his sins.
Guapa tells Rasa’s story with an acerbic wit, developing the reader’s sympathy for the protagonist with every page. Rasa’s life as an interpreter brings him into contact with foreign journalists and government officials alike, and he learns of small pieces of many problems facing the country, serving to overwhelm the reader with the sense of despair and hopelessness facing many residents of the unnamed city. Haddad does an excellent job at weaving many facets of Rasa’s life as a queer Arab man together, discussing the choice between theocrats and terrorists, Rasa’s exocitization in America, and the fear Rasa feels for a gay friend who was arrested in turns.
Saleem Haddad currently lives in London; he was born to a Lebanese father and an Iraqi-German mother in Kuwait. Guapa is his debut novel.
Cone, Edward B. “Guapa.” Library Journal, vol. 141, no. 4, 1 Mar. 2016, p. 92.
Haddad, Saleem. Guapa. Place of publication not identified, EUROPA EDITIONS, 2016.
Mr. Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo
Bernardine Evaristo’s seventh novel, Mr. Loverman, is about a closeted gay Caribbean British man who struggles to find the courage to come out. At 74 years old, Barrington Jedidiah Walker’s insecurity with being both gay and black in 1960s-present day London propels the narrative and opens the book up to discussions about race, sexuality, gentrification, and more. Evaristo began her career in poetry, which is evident by the way she treats language in her writing. Her vividly descriptive prose brings the characters to life in a lyrically poetic voice. Barry is a husband, father, and grandfather, and is deeply in love—not with his wife Carmel, but with his childhood friend, Morris Courtney de la Roux. Carmel is convinced that Barry spends his nights cavorting with various other women, when in fact when in fact Barry is sheltering an affair with Morris. Barry’s most burning and secret desire is to leave Carmel for Morris, but he is afraid of the consequences that will come from publicly coming out as gay. In addition, Barry has to navigate modern Britain as a Caribbean immigrant. Though he has lived in London for forty years, life as a person of color and minority ethnic is never without its challenges. Crafted with careful wit and heartbreaking truths, Evaristo’s elegantly crafted narrative shows the delicate balance between being true to one’s self and being brave enough to face the consequences of doing so.
My Brother the Devil (2012) Movie
Written and directed by Sally El Hosaini, My Brother the Devil serves as an amazing debut film, presenting a heartfelt narrative set in east London (Bradshaw). The film follows two brothers, children of Egyptian immigrants, living in Hackney, and the way they navigate masculinity, immigrant status and gang culture, presenting nuanced ideas of sexuality and masculinity coupled with the cultural ideas of what it means to be othered in society, be it through race or sexuality (O’Sullivan). The plot follows Rashid and his younger brother Mo, who have become involved in drug-dealing and gang culture. After the stabbing and consequent death of Rashid’s best friend, who had been contemplating leaving gang life, Rashid starts entertaining the idea of leaving that life and having a better one, shaking his commitment to his “fam” in the gang. This is particularly hard on Mo, who worships his older brother and follows his footsteps into the “tough guy” world of gangs, neglecting his schoolwork. Rashid finds employment with Sayyid, a photographer, and during downtime the two share a kiss. Though initially repulsed at the idea of being attracted to a man, Rashid soon returns to Sayyid and begins a relationship with him. Mo sees the two together, however, and runs to tell his friends, but cannot get it out. The story then spirals as he tells his friends Rashid is involved with a terrorist attack instead, with the gang almost killing both brothers and Mo taking a bullet for Rashid. The film ends on a bittersweet note, with Mo being released from the hospital and Rashid walking into his new life.
The film is an interesting commentary on the treatment of sexuality in these hyper-masculine spaces, and the cinematography portrays this perfectly, bursting with the energy and adrenaline of young men itching for more (Bradshaw). My Brother the Devil tells the thrilling narrative of young men struggling to find their place and identity.
You can find a trailer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZjXLaDbU8A
Bradshaw, Peter. “My Brother the Devil – Review.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 08
Nov. 2012. Web. 25 Apr. 2017.
O’Sullivan, Michael. “‘My Brother the Devil’ Movie Review.” The Washington Post. WP
Company, 09 May 2013. 26 Apr. 2017.
Skins by Patience Agbabi
This poem is very important and especially relevant to our topic in that Agbabi talks about her struggle to fit in as a black women in society. The speaker talks about being a misfit and not fitting in with the society and people around her. A stanza in the poem says “I hate my past.
My big lie reflected in their eyes, their hatred in my skin” The speaker says how she is ashamed of her past and that it reflected through her eyes and skin color. This is a common theme of Black literature and sexually out women and she portrays her struggles perfectly in this poem. Skin color is such a big deal to a lot of people and dictates the way that people are treated within society. This poem is also very sexual and makes a lot of references to sexual acts as well. This is also an overall theme in a lot of Patience Agbabi’s poetry and she brings to light the struggles that she had to personally go through in order to make it through the racism and homophobia that people had towards her and how she choose to rise above the issues that constantly affect her daily life.
“My Grandmother’s House” by Jackie Kay
Some of Jackie Kay’s most touching works revolve around the treatment of themes like the fluidity of identity, Scottishness, and home. Her poem My Grandmother’s House describes the three homes the narrator associates with her grandmother – the run-down home her grandmother lived in for years and is ejected from, the apartment she moves into, and the house she cleans as a cleaning lady. Although it’s brief, this poem deals with issues of class, labor, and how we accumulate our history by examining the differences between these different homes.
The narrator’s grandmother’s first apartment is in a tenement building, near a cemetery. It is implied that the grandmother has lived in this apartment for many years, as the newspapers that have been used as gift wrapping accumulate over the years. Through this, the grandmother is literally living within her own history as well as the history of England itself post-World War Two. When she’s sent some kind of letter (the reader assumes an eviction notice), the grandmother is sent into a rage – she doesn’t want to live away from the history, from the habits she’s formed over time.
The narrator’s grandmother’s second apartment is in a high-rise building – the narrator finds the elevator to be a novelty until she gets stuck in it. This section of the poem works to establish the grandmother’s adjustment process to the new apartment as she acquiesces to enjoying indoor plumbing and the carpets. However, the poem is clear that life is not a dream for this woman – at seventy years old, she is still cleaning the homes of others.
The final home that the narrator associates with her grandmother is a posh home that her grandmother cleans. The narrator comes along with her grandmother, and finally begins to play with a piano in the home. The woman who owns the house comes by and tells the little girl her skin looks like cafe au lait, a typically racially charged comment; the grandmother’s only concern is whether or not her granddaughter is getting in the way. The stanza is very short, but it does a lot of work to discuss class problems (“the only problem in England”) and race relations. Overall, the poem discusses class, race, and family in ways consistent with the larger body of Kay’s work.
Novels by Black and Asian British authors
Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam
Aslam’s story of immigrants from Pakistan is set in the town of Dasht-e-Tanhaii. The town is home to a community of Pakistan-born families that have used their home language to rename the British streets and create a neighborhood entirely their own. The novel immediately drops the reader into a dark tale: Chanda and Jugnu have gone missing, presumably killed for living together as unwed lovers. It is the aftermath of their disappearance that drives the novel, as Islam and Pakistan clash with the western culture of Britain. Jugnu’s brother, Shamas, is not wholly tied to his Islamic roots, while his wife Kaukub staunchly believes in the tenants of Islam on which she was raised. These two characters offer a contrast throughout the novel as Aslam both criticizes and humanizes the Islamic faith. Shamas and Kaukub are estranged from their children, second-generation immigrants that are attempting to forge their own identities in their new country while also being asked to maintain the traditions of their parents’ country. For example, through this family conflict the reader sees Kaukab pushing her children into beliefs they reject, even after her children have expressed their distaste with her actions. However, the reader is also let in on the pain that arises from Kaukab’s inability to have a relationship with her children largely because everything she knows is tied to her faith. Many of these moments colored with conflict and empathy are sprinkled throughout the novel, and the tensions between these beliefs eventually lead up to the arrest of Chanda’s brothers on suspicion of murdering the two lovers. The idea of honor killings (Chanda’s brothers supposedly killed their sister and her lover because they were bringing dishonor to the family) is the ultimate conflict for the community. For Kaukub, the exemplary Muslim woman, she must explore whether or not she can have love for her husband’s brother while also recognizing his sin. Through this conflict, Aslam demonstrates the struggle of immigrants in England, layering his book with themes of justice, love, race, religion, and belonging.
The Emperor’s Babe by Bernardine Evaristo
Evaristo’s novel, written in verse, is the tale of Zulieka – born to Sudanese refugees – growing up in Londinium, a version of London during the time of the Roman Empire in 211 A.D. In order to provide their daughter with a better life, Zuleika’s parents arrange for her to marry Lucius Aurelius Felix, a well-known senator, at the age of 11. In the beginning of their marriage, Zuleika is excited to elevate her social standing and enter a life of riches and luxury. However, soon after consummating their marriage, Zuleika feels trapped in her own home because of her lack of agency. Her sex life is Felix is demanding and lacks passion, and Zuleika feels trapped inside her own home. As Felix travels for work and prefers to stay in more exciting places that Londinium, Zuleika is free to do as pleases and traverses the city with her childhood friend Alba and the eccentric presence of Venus (a transgender woman). It is in the urban nightlife of Londinium that Zuleika meets the Roman emperor, Septimus Severus, with whom she has an affair with. It is with Severus that Zuleika discovers her sexuality and falls in love, finding herself in a relationship that is less about power dynamics and more about equality (though the emperor does have an official wife). In her relationship with Severus, Zuleika is able to gain her agency back and pursue her passions, such as poetry. Zuleika’s dream of eventually being the ’emperor’s babe’ is over, when her lover dies unexpectedly. Evaristo’s satirical novel is furthered by its play on language, mixing English and Latin, creating Latin slang that fits the urban feel of the novel.
Trumpet by Jackie Kay
Kay’s story of identity begins with the death of famous jazz musician, Joss Moody. Upon his death, Moody’s coroner discovered him to be biologically female. The story is told from three main perspectives: that of Moody’s wife, Millie; his son, Colman; and Sophie, a journalist interesting in Moody’s story. Sprinkled throughout the novel are shorter narratives from various people in Moody’s life, such as the coroner, a fellow musician, and the registrar who signs death certificates. Millie’s narrative details her life with Joss: their initial meeting, sharing Joss’s secret, marriage, adoption, and love. As she deals with the death of her husband, Millie must also deal with the anger of her son. Colman was never aware of his father’s biological sex, shifting through the stages of shock, anger, and betrayal for the majority of the novel. Colman teams up with Sophie, providing a number of detailed interviews about life with his father. During these interviews, Colman reflects on his memories with his father, feeling as if they are all fraudulent, and attempts to pick out the signs where his father’s identity should have been obvious. Sophie is interested in writing the story of the famous trumpet player who lived as a man, providing the reader with a mainstream reaction to transgender issues. Eventually, the narrative leads back to Joss’s estranged mother, Edith Moore. When Colman goes to see his grandmother, he leans towards acceptance and understanding as he finds moments of love for his father among his anger. While the story is largely about gender identity and black Britain, issues of secrecy, grief, and acceptance are also injected throughout the text.
The Lost Child by Caryl Phillips
Phillips begins and ends his story of outcasts by imagining the unknown origins of Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, whose parentage is left a mystery in his original storyline. In The Lost Child, Heathcliff is found to be the child of Mr. Earnshaw and an African slave, providing the direct element of race to Heathcliff’s background. The middle of Phillips’s novel, though, leaves Heathcliff behind and steps forward in time to the 1950s to tell the tale of Monica Johnson. The reader meets Monica as she is about to be cut off from her parents for dating a black man – Julius – who she later marries and has two children with. Eventually Julius moves back to his homeland to take part in a revolution for independence, Monica’s life steadily falls apart as she is left to raise her children. Monica and her sons belong in the lower class; poverty plagues their lives and they live in housing projects in the moors of England. She begins a relationship with a new man and her mental health quickly deteriorates, which lead up to the disappearance of her youngest son. With his brother lost to the moors, Monica’s oldest son takes over the narrative, detailing his journey to overcome his grief and push through foster care and his college years. With the connection of outcasts and orphans, Phillips brings the novel back to Heathcliff in the end. The moors ultimately intertwine the two dark stories together, and the themes of race, isolation, and belonging are core pieces to the overarching plot.