The presence of South Asian characters in British theatre is not the extreme rarity it once was. Whilst South Asians and people of colour more widely are still hugely underrepresented in theatre – as actors, writers, directors and in storylines – there has undoubtedly been some progress in recent years. What remains less visible, however, is South Asian characters engaging in rich discussions of history in all its complexity, from a questioning, left-wing perspective. If this is not for you, you should probably avoid playwright and Momentum activist Sonali Bhattacharyya’s Two Billion Beats, showing now at London’s Orange Tree Theatre.
Two Billion Beats follows Asha (Safiyya Ingar), a bright sixth former set on attending SOAS, as her assignments lead her to discover the work of Dalit lawyer and activist B.R. Ambedkar and begin to question her mother’s idolisation of Mahatma Gandhi. Meanwhile, Asha navigates school bullying and racism along with her younger sister, Bettina (Anoushka Chadha).
As well as its clear left politics, one thing instantly set this play apart from many narratives I had come across around South Asians in the UK: its teenage characters are not second-generation immigrants, but at least third-generation. We soon learn that their mother grew up in the same area of Leicester in which the play is set, and the play’s backstory explores her experiences as a school student around 20 years earlier. This is a refreshing departure from the arguably outdated trope of South Asian parents as one-dimensionally strict or ‘traditional’ first-generation immigrants, with an unbridgeable cultural gulf between them and their children. In fact, the gulf here comes not from a culture clash in the conventional sense, but from a more subtle generational difference in willingness to engage with politics. In an era of late capitalism and impending climate doom, when young people and teenagers are increasingly politically engaged, this experience is all too real for many young people across ethnic backgrounds.
Nevertheless, the outlook of Asha’s unseen, yet ever present mother is revealed to have been fundamentally shaped by racism. Through her backstory, the play powerfully explores how a climate of racism and xenophobia can skew one’s view of one’s own culture. Mainstream, widely acceptable symbols and heroic representatives of this culture, like Gandhi, become something to latch on to unquestioningly as a source of comfort and identity. In this vein, Bhattacharyya simultaneously examines our relationships with our heroes, what it means to recognise their shortcomings and how destabilising this can feel. In a poignant monologue narrating a conversation with her mother, Asha describes how, whilst her mother was born and raised in the UK, ‘there was always an edge to it’, a feeling that she didn’t quite belong, which was softened by ‘Gandhiji’. By questioning Gandhiji’s politics, she felt that her daughter had ‘punctured’ this heroic image of him.
The function of heroes within an intrinsically racist society once again arises in Asha’s own relationship with Gandhi. She wonders whether her teacher is more comfortable with her writing critically on Gandhi and Ambedkar, ‘two brown dudes’, than on revered British heroine-figures the Pankhursts. This does not deter Asha, however, from adding Sylvia Pankhurst’s work to the mix as she strives to find her own political voice.
The play’s plot deals delicately with the relationship between racism and Islamophobia. Asha’s experiences of racism at school echo those of her mother, highlighting the enduring racism faced by South Asians, including non-Muslims. Yet, just as their mother did, Asha and Bettina must ultimately confront their own privilege in an era of rampant Islamophobia and the escalation of the ‘war on terror’ in school settings, which renders Muslim students disturbingly vulnerable.
The minimalist stage of the Orange Tree Theatre lends itself beautifully to the play’s primary setting: the bus stop where the sisters wait after school. An indicator board gives the times of the next buses as they argue and banter, talking over their experiences at school, political figures, racism and Islamophobia. The setting gives these scenes an authenticity: the bus stop, and mundane outdoor spaces more generally, are familiar spaces of teenage reflection, particularly when contrasted with a tense or claustrophobic home environment.
Asha’s accounts of her conversations with her mother are deeply natural, despite functioning primarily to inform the audience. The mother’s absence allows the audience to see their relationship entirely through Asha’s eyes, and chart her gradual shift towards a deeper understanding of her mother’s background and experiences. Ingar commands the stage with her conversational, relaxed, yet musingly reflective tone, whilst Chadha’s Bettina, both vulnerable and insightful in her own right, is a grounding force for Asha. Often almost interrupting Asha’s monologues to voice her own struggles, Bettina prompts Asha to anchor her developing political awareness within her own life.
The play moves swiftly between many themes – racism, Islamophobia, intergenerational dialogue, sibling and parent/child relationships, political awakening, history – but these are woven together seamlessly and never feel jarring or overwhelming. The characters are not merely vehicles for political statements. Instead the play authentically captures an era in which coming of age is often synonymous with developing a progressive political stance.
Two Billion Beats left me with much to process and reflect on, but one message came through clear: we must crucially examine our understanding of mainstream heroes. Such probing questions may just be a step towards radical social justice.
Two Billion Beats is showing at the Orange Tree Theatre until 5 March and is available to stream on demand between 8-11 March 2022.
All images credit: Orange Tree Theatre
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