Theatre: Let's play happy families

Ayub Khan-Din, star of TV's London Bridge, has bared his family problems in black and white. Dr Raj Persaud analyses the results
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The Independent Culture
When East Is East opens at the Duke of York's tonight, it will be the first Asian play to take a commercial West End stage - all the more remarkable an achievement, given that it is also the first play by TV and film actor Ayub Khan-Din. But that this co-production between Tamasha Theatre, Birmingham Rep and the Royal Court can boast true cross-cultural appeal is evident from the fact that, even before embarking upon an acclaimed regional tour, East Is East had already made history as the first play ever to sell out at the Royal Court's Theatre Upstairs before its opening night last year.

A funny and often excruciatingly accurate account of a dysfunctional family, Ayub Khan-Din's play draws richly on his own home life, in which eight brothers and two sisters added to the turmoil engendered by his Pakistani father's troubled relations with his English wife and frustrated attempts at running a chip shop in 1960s Salford.

As a consultant psychiatrist working within the NHS, I usually look forward to my evenings in the theatre as an escape from work. But, while most families seem profoundly disturbed when viewed from the outside, the relationships in Din's family, particularly those surrounding his tormented father, felt so real, and the problems so acute, it was easy to forget that this was "only" theatre - and at several points during the evening my wife had to physically restrain me from trying to storm the stage and start administering family therapy on the spot.

Ayub Khan-Din, already familiar as an actor from starring roles in such films as Sammy and Rosie Get Laid and TV series like London Bridge and Staying Alive, admits that he has presented family conflict on stage in its rawest form, and indeed several scenes are so grotesquely uncomfortable, one wonders whether he has any faith left in the successful outcome of mixed-race marriages.

Surprisingly, he denies that the problems he presents on stage are specifically Asian, and the fact that East Is East so obviously appeals to mixed audiences suggests that there is indeed something about its subject matter to which we can all relate. Ironically, given its apparently jaundiced view of inter-racial marriage, one reason for the play's appeal may well lie in the increasing prevalence of just such relationships within modern British life.

Inter-racial partnerships currently account for 1 per cent of all marriages in Britain and are increasing dramatically: among people of West Indian origin, some 30 per cent of those under 30 who are currently married or cohabiting now have a white partner. Perhaps it is no surprise, therefore, that it is British rather than American theatre (and cinema - East Is East goes into screen production at the BBC towards the end of the year) that is tackling the subject most openly. Some sense of the taboo still surrounding the subject in the US can be gauged from the fact that, there, only around 4 per cent of black men, and 1 per cent of black women, are married to white partners.

But the British Asian community is also less keen to embrace whites: here, 10 per cent of Asian men and 5 per cent of Asian women are in mixed marriages, and the status quo is not changing as rapidly as in the West Indian scene. Polls suggest that unmarried young Asians are now just as reluctant to marry into different race, religion or even caste as were earlier generations.

That said, white discomfort with racial mixing has clearly come a long way since 18th-century distaste for those of mixed race was reflected in such terms as mulatto (the Portuguese word for a young mule). British Gallup polls of 1958 found that 71 per cent of respondents strongly disapproved of mixed marriages, while by the 1980s surveys found that only 27 per cent now objected to mixed-race marriage, even among close relatives.

That there are, however, still real practical problems inherent in mixed marriages emerges all too clearly from Khan-Din's play. How aware the author's mum was, before her marriage, that her husband already had a wife and children back in Pakistan, Ayub can't be certain, but the money his father sends back home to his first family is a running thorn in her side throughout the play. Still, despite all the traumas, Ayub himself remains sanguine about life in a mixed-race family.

Psychiatrists and social workers might be less sure. Both have to pick up the pieces of marital breakdown and, while psychiatrists might well wonder if marriage isn't difficult enough even between the same races, without adding in the stress of inter-racial in-law disapproval and cultural alienation, social workers, faced with having to place mixed-race children in care, can worry that a single white parent might be less able to help their mixed-race children with the survival skills required in a racist society.

Yet in Khan-Din's play, as in his life, it is the Pakistani father - with his constant demands for respect from his children, often extorted through violent physical beatings - who probably interfered more with their normal childhood development than their supportive and long-suffering British mother. Indeed it was the father who alienated his children so much that several eventually stopped speaking to him altogether. Interestingly, research suggests that, in the end, children are most likely to identify with the race of the parent with whom they get on best; hence, in his very efforts to inculcate Asian values, Khan-Din's father may have been inadvertently guilty of actually driving his children away from Pakistani culture.

Some of the other absurd paradoxes that make East Is East so hilarious also pop up in psychological research on the subject: thus psychologists Barbara Tizard and Ann Phoenix, interviewing mixed-race London schoolchildren, reported in 1993 that 38 per cent of them thought that at least one of their parents was racially prejudiced!

More worryingly, as long ago as 1928, Harvard sociologist Robert Park invented the term "marginal man" to describe the children of mixed-race marriages - children destined for alienation from both black and white, torn between competing loyalties, the recipients of racism from both sides of the colour divide. Ayub Khan-Din vigorously rebuts this caricature: in his view, his parents managed to raise 10 highly successful and stable children.

But while psychological research concurs that mixed-race children are on average no more likely to end up being delinquent or suffering from low self-esteem than their peers, Tizard and Phoenix's study did find that 20 per cent wished they were white or another colour other than mixed, and while a further 20 per cent did not actually want to be another race, they were not proud of their skin colour.

Certainly Ayub Khan-Din's own success as an actor and playwright precludes anyone from defining mixed-race children as "marginal". But that there remains something indefinably special about a mixed-race ancestry is hinted at by the fact that Khan-Din himself is now in a long-term relationship with someone half Nigerian and half English, while - completely by fluke, it appears - all the young actors playing the children in East Is East also come from mixed-race families.

But perhaps the play's appeal works at an even more unconscious level. We know that, in 1772, there were around 15,000 black slaves in Britain. Given a total population at the time of nine million, there was thus a larger proportion of black people in Britain during the 18th century than at any period until the great wave of West Indian immigration began in the 1950s. These black people seem to have largely disappeared up until the beginning of the 20th century. Yet we know from the lives of 19th- century figures of racially mixed parentage - like Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the Croydon-born composer of the Hiawatha trilogy (and the son of a British mother and a West African father) - that many of these ex-slaves and their descendants married white British women. Hence it follows that many ostensibly "white" Britons of today must, unwittingly, have black ancestors.

Geneticists concur: we are all a lot more mixed than we realise, and so, maybe somewhere deep within us, there is a part of us that is drawn to other races, and to plays like Ayub Khan-Din's.

'East Is East' opens tonight, Royal Court Theatre Downstairs at the Duke of York's, St Martin's Lane, London WC2 (0171-565 5000)

Dr Raj Persaud is a consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital

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