The drama of my life

When an overjoyed Yasmin Alibhai-Brown won a prize for playing Juliet, she had no idea it would blow her family apart. Now she's back on stage to tell the story
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The Independent Culture

It all started two years ago when I met Dominic Cooke, the erstwhile associate director of the Royal Court Theatre. He invited me in to talk to new playwrights about multiple identities, the sensibility of an immigrant, the nation in flux and how I felt the creative arts were responding.

It all started two years ago when I met Dominic Cooke, the erstwhile associate director of the Royal Court Theatre. He invited me in to talk to new playwrights about multiple identities, the sensibility of an immigrant, the nation in flux and how I felt the creative arts were responding.

The playwrights were flushed with ideas and enthusiasms, cool, fresh, challenging. I put to them my critique of multi-culturalism as espoused by this state. It had led to wilful, woeful ignorance and volitional estrangements between the peoples of this nation, leaving black and Asian Britons playing marbles in the ghetto (in separate clans) and many white Britons feeling disengaged and indignant. Meanwhile, British institutions carry on blissfully, white and inward-looking. Our culture is officially Balkanised, a trend I abhor partly because of my experiences growing up in Uganda, my homeland.

Out there, my brilliant teachers had led me to the best of playwrights. Makerere University in the capital, where I studied literature, was an intellectual powerhouse of world repute. (I could almost hear them think: "Seriously? In Africa?") We were stimulated to feel awe as we entered the house of living words. Every time I make for my seat in a theatre, my blood quickens and I relive that kick.

My old drama books are yellowing now, untouched for more than 35 years. There, among about 150 paperbacks, are texts by Tagore and Wole Soyinka, Edward Albee's The Zoo Story, Beckett's Waiting for Godot, The Insect Play by the Czech writers Josef and Karel Capek (Josef died in Belsen), Chekhov's The Three Sisters, Gorky's The Lower Depths, Three Plays for Puritans by Shaw and most of Shakespeare. All have been annotated furiously, in pencil, in squiggles I can no longer read.

I got to act, too, in some of the great classics. At 14, I was Nora in Ibsen's A Doll's House, at 15 the impish Cleopatra in Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra and a manic Abigail in The Crucible. I was pitiless to Shylock as Portia, and a not very convincing Viola in Twelfth Night. There was an empty room beneath our flat, full of beasties. There, I tied ribbons under the bust and round my head and acted parts - Miranda, Desdemona, Cleopatra - alone, a melodrama-fest sometimes producing real tears, the nascent actress with her extravagant, profligate yearnings.

I have photographs of a superb production of A Midsummer Night's Dream by semi-professional players at Kampala's National Theatre, the hub of cultural life in the capital. With friends (two Muslims, one Parsee, one Hindu), I was a fairy in a cropped top and skirt made of green chiffon petals. Even now, when we meet, someone turns into a babbling Bottom or reproduces Puck's mischievous rhymes - old thespians in a kebab house. Shakespeare remains for us the greatest inspiration, a lover whose voice never ages.

It was this engrossing relationship with Shakespeare, I told the Royal Court writers, which caused a lethal explosion, leaving scars that will never heal. I was young, fiery and innocent. How was I to know that a school play ( Romeo and Juliet), would end in an almighty scandal that would take me off the boards for ever? Until now.

The stage was where I felt released from a crushingly painful home life and intolerable conventions. I had real talent, they said. One night 37 years ago, I rushed home, an elated Juliet, carrying a precious acting award that would have led to acting school in London. But these possibilities were callously snuffed out by my family, my father most of all, who punished me with a deadly silence. He, who loved Lear, never spoke to me again. He died four years later. Fathers and daughters: a running theme in Shakespeare.

Dominic Cooke moved to the RSC and offered me a one-woman show based on this tragedy within the tragedy. For 10 months, I have been transported back to that hellish moment. My director Gavin Marshall, sharp, perceptive, has forced me back into the cell of buried emotions and grief. It has been shattering. Demons lurk and cause havoc in places you have not attended to in order to go on with life. I am back with Shakespeare on my tongue. Imagine that. After so many years and all that unfinished business.

This is a story about race, sex and class in that paradise that was Uganda from where we were ignominiously chucked out by Idi Amin. He was a monstrous man - cannibalistic, brutish, unpredictable, part child and part savage, Caliban. We were the self-controlled, cautious, nifty merchants, decorous fiddlers of accounts, hoarders of wealth, excellent bribers, family and community creatures governed by manners. We thought of ourselves as pearls before swine. And they called us the Shylocks of East Africa.

Asians wanted stakes in that gorgeous land, but many could only deal with black Africans as inferiors. Black Ugandans grew, unjustly, to despise our entire race. We had been part of a system of unspoken apartheid set up by the British. Whites on top of the high hills, blacks in the sunless pits, Asians in the middle.

For Asians, the wheels of life rolled predictably: birth, school, business, marriage, children, school, business... and into this existence came subversive forces. Elvis and Cliff first, then the Sixties, which wafted over carrying Twiggy, op art, miniskirts and The Beatles. Hippies arrived with unwashed white feet, never seen before. Jim Barrows, an American draft-dodger who taught at our school, was a cross between Dean Martin and James Dean. He said he'd been one of the divers in Dr No, and the sight of him tickled parts we didn't know we had.

Kali and Gopi Gupta (not their real names), a couple from Calcutta, were teachers and exceptional actors. Kali was voluptuous, walked with a swing. Gopi had Paul Scofield's chocolate voice. They starred in the Dream production at the National. Kali was a spiteful, whimsical Titania, Gopi a charismatic, manipulative Oberon, and the jealousies they acted out seemed to reflect their own flaming marriage. Can you imagine how exciting that was for us, their pupils? We, who knew little about sex and possessive love?

This was the period of decolonisation, but with none of the abysmal rejectionism of contemporary cultural politics. Nobody in Uganda wanted to burn books by wicked Westerners. It was an expansive time, when ideas opened up so that Third World artists could come into the canon and joust with imperial narratives. The Black, Asian and white intelligentsia believed that Shakespeare's plays were crucial for emerging nations.

But the end of empire also brought uncertainties and apprehension. Asians * * were fearful that lascivious black men wanted to ravage their women. Some black men were demanding the right to marry Asian girls and acting lewdly when we were on the streets. We felt ever more alienated from the country we loved, its heartbeat, its drumbeats producing only terror. Remember Prospero's rage when Caliban tries to violate Miranda. It was the final act of barbarism. For us, it was the final imagined horror.

My father seemed different, complex and awesome, because he hurled himself against the surf waves of convention. He was an adventurer, a serial failure in business, wilful, unreliable, but he appeared to understand politics and injustice and literature. I thought. Life at home was always confusing, infused with the suppressed fury of a disappointed marriage, the misery of misfits. Until I was 13, I slept between my parents, ever more sour to each other, like the air they breathed out.

School was my sanctuary. Run by Mr Raval, a much-respected headmaster, who had a black and orange smile (he chewed pan all day) and teeth like old stones in a graveyard. He saw everything. He chastised me for not being a regular, trembling Asian schoolgirl. He was right, too, not to trust me to be good.

We had a new drama teacher, beautiful, tall and blonde. Joyce Mann decided to shake things up by producing Romeo and Juliet for a drama competition. She, a white woman, decided to cast black Africans as the Montagues and Asian Africans as the Capulets. It was radical, the right thing to do, but naive. She didn't know just how deeply divided we were.

I was Juliet. Romeo was like a ballet dancer, had smooth reflective skin and treacle eyes. Mrs Mann told me recently that she had to train us to kiss properly on the mouth, alone in a classroom away from horrified eyes. I had excised this from my memory, possibly because I was moved by John, there was an erotic charge. The play was lauded, and I won the best actress prize. The local newspaper, The Uganda Argus, pronounced me an enchanting Juliet. I felt amazing.

On my way home, going up the dark staircase with its fetid stench, I had heard ululations that started up on the street getting louder. A thief had been spotted, the crowds were calling out to each other to come and sport with him before they kicked him or burnt him to death. Not even this quelled my joy on this night as I burst into our small sitting-room.

Why were they sitting as if someone had died? My mother was sobbing. Male relatives came towards me with steely eyes, grabbed my shoulders, banged my head against the wall, slapped me. They called me a slut, a polluter of their good name. What good name? How dare he die before we had resolved anything? What kind of father does that?

We Asians are old Elizabethans. Romeo and Juliet happens every day in our communities. When Capulet tells his daughter she is his to do as he wishes, we know what that means. Young lovers howl, run away, sometimes die because they have dared to cross over, out of race, class, faith, village, caste, ethnicity. Do the parents love their children? Yes, so much they can kill them for their own good.

As I started discussing this with my director, Gavin Marshall, he suddenly understood why Shakespeare, this dead white male, means so much to immigrants from the old colonies. We are living his plays, not merely watching them. Cecily Berry, the voice coach who helped me, goes further - she believes that a comfortable, white, middle-class life has distanced people from the profundities and experiences in Shakespeare.

Look at the stalking threats on the streets in the plays, the brawls, knives and angry young men. In Othello, the eruption of violence between Cassio, Roderigo and Montano rocks society, which feels shaky, vulnerable. Lady Montague frets that Romeo might have been in another fracas. Think of Stephen Lawrence's mother Doreen, and other mothers of black and Asian and white boys, praying every time the proud men get dressed to strut. Will they come back dead? Whence the swagger and bloodlust?

Julius Nyerere, the socialist president of Tanzania after independence, translated Macbeth into Swahili, and theatre groups took the play to the villages to get the people to understand the nature of ruthless ambition. Troilus and Cressida has the most moving testimonies on the destiny of a mixed-race child. Antony and Cleopatra spins around the dangerous intoxication of the East, which destroys the most Roman of Romans. In 1930, at the Savoy Theatre, with Paul Robeson as Othello and Peggy Ashcroft as Desdemona, critics walked out and the audience hissed when they touched. Race riots in this country have been triggered by what we may call the Othello situation.

Every day in our streets, Othellos walk proudly with their Desdemonas. They hear the insults, they fight the fights for their right to do so. Bright, open white women have long been drawn to black men who can dance, dress, seduce, love and talk like Othello. The first confident band of Caribbean men arrived in their hats and suits after 1948, and they were soon in the dance halls, champions of the jitterbug, irresistible to women emerging into the light after the long wartime years.

I once sat in on a lesson on Othello in a London secondary school. Some white boys said Desdemona was stupid for trusting a black. They are no good. The girls think these guys are cool. Then they beat them up, get them pregnant, "kick them about, have other girlfriends..."

And of course it can end badly. Othello does destroy sweet Desdemona. And though this is not said openly, there are terribly disenchanted white women who hoped for better from their black lovers. Men disappoint women much too much of the time. But when the man is black and the woman white, race intensifies the emotions, poisons meanings.

Oh yes, Shakespeare's truths are still alive and all-pervasive. His England was the first age of globalisation. The itchy, bold Elizabethans could not stay put, had to seek adventure and exotica, contact with the fantastic unknown. Othello is the prize and price of those voyages. Action and reaction. They understood that.

I called this testimony "Extravagant Stranger", because that is how Othello is described by the friends of Desdemona's father. Today's extravagant strangers are the unloved migrants who come here with their outlandish dreams and huge suitcases, to be demonised and maltreated by our natives. They were then, too.

This was sent to me by Trevor Phillips. It is from an unfinished work on Thomas More by Shakespeare, which the RSC will dramatise this year:

Grant them removed...

Imagine that you see the wretched


Their babies at their backs, with

their poor luggage,

Plodding to the ports and coasts for


What had you got? I'll tell you. You

had taught

How insolence and strong hand

should prevail

And by this pattern not one of you

should live an aged man

For other ruffians as their fancies


With selfsame hand, self reasons,

and self right

Would shark on you.

All these evils come from the inability of humans to embrace the other; the tribal impulse to extinguish those who do in acts of love, of simple humanity or reaching out to people who have no choice but to leave their homelands and impose upon suspicious folk in safer places. In this age of globalisation, the imperatives of purity have been reasserted as the world gets more messy and mixed-up. Tribalism, nationalism, communalism and even racism have potent new advocates.

Although it hurt for years, and still does, the fallout from that production of Romeo and Juliet has proved invaluable. I have learnt that transgressors are everywhere. We live and laugh and make love and babies and life-long friends across the boundaries. One day, our children and theirs will inherit a country where it really won't matter at all what colour they are, the gods they pray to, the songs they sing. And idealistic brown girls will not be punished because they dared. And their fathers will not cut them off.

'Nowhere to Belong: Tales of an Extravagant Stranger', Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's one-woman show, is at the Soho Theatre, London W1 (0870 429 6883), 1 to 5 March