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How theatre can confront Britain's post-Brexit racism

Playwright Atiha Sen Gupta explains how her new play Counting Stars, set in a nightclub toilet, makes an audience face up to our current climate of fear

Atiha Sen Gupta
Thursday 01 September 2016 14:41 BST
Estella Daniels in Counting Stars
Estella Daniels in Counting Stars (Scott Rylander)

Brexit. The word that launched a thousand debates.

Whatever your take on Britain’s recent decision to leave the European Union, what cannot be disputed is the post-Brexit surge in racist (and often physically violent) attacks. The Institute of Race Relations has compiled a list of racist incidents that occurred after the result. This spike in the public expression of racism has been recorded by the police as being 42 per cent higher than the same time last year. The Leave Campaign did not invent racism, but it certainly appears to have reinforced it.

Leave Campaign tactics included rejecting ‘experts’ and playing on raw emotion. The idea of ‘taking back control’ – that ubiquitous Leave catchphrase – was a powerful one for voters who felt they did not have any in their own lives.

Control is a tough thing to feel you have if your job is insecure, if your community is disintegrating, if you cannot get a GP’s appointment. But all of the above is not a result of immigration. It is the result of austerity and the neoliberal order. It is fine to demand to take back control – but from whom? Remain should have argued to take it back from the top, not the bottom.

It is at this intersection of racial otherness and economic exploitation that I have written a play called Counting Stars. It tells the tale of two Nigerian toilet attendants, Abiodun and Sophie, who fall in love in a post-Lee Rigby, post-Brexit, Woolwich nightclub. United in love but divided by a toilet wall, they go unpaid by management and are forced to rely on the charity of clubbers.

At the lowest rung of British society, I had noticed this relatively recent phenomenon in nightclubs - the instalment of attendants in the male and female toilets who were overwhelmingly Nigerian. I was shocked to learn that not only do they go unpaid but all of the wares that they sell (lollipops, perfumes, paper towels) have to be paid for by themselves. The only ‘wages’ they get is from passing punters who may or may not decide to patronise them.

The only thing worse than zero hour contracts is minus zero hour contracts. YouTube is full of mocking videos shot by young Brits enjoying the toilet attendant’s call to “freshen up for punani”. The term ‘bog wog’ has been coined to derogatorily describe them and is freely bandied about on certain internet forums.

Traditionally, racism in British political campaigns has been directed against non-white migrants - the infamous 1964 by-election in Smethwick which declared ‘if you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour’ being perhaps the most damning example. However, the recent Leave campaign initially focused on the presence of ‘white’ migrants from the EU. The rhetoric behind Leave seemed to be: if you want a Romanian for a neighbour, vote Remain.

What is crucial to remember is that racism relies on the careful construction and zealous exclusion of the ‘other’. Once you have an ‘us’ and ‘them’ demarcated, actually nobody is safe. The ‘them’ predictably moved to encompass the threat of minorities of colour: just think of the poster about Turkey joining the EU - “population 76 million” - and Nigel Farage telling us we were at breaking point in front of a billboard of Syrian refugees cast as swarthy migrants snaking around the block to infiltrate Europe. It’s no wonder that racist attacks are so sharply on the rise.

In my play Counting Stars, the audience are invited onto a stage that has been transformed into a nightclub complete with wrist-stamping bouncers and a fully-stocked bar. The effect of this is two-fold: to bring the audience in as voyeurs watching the relationship between Abiodun and Sophie unfold, and to make them complicit in the exploitation visited upon them.

Away from the dance floor, the play delves into the underbelly of the nightclub: the toilets. It is Valentine’s Night and Abiodun and Sophie plan to celebrate their one year anniversary together once they have finished serving all of their customers. They have to navigate drunken clubbers, harsh management and difficult punters, all the while keeping an eye on the clock so they can make their way home by midnight for their own special night. But, boosted by Brexit, one particular client keeps returning to pay Abiodun a visit in the men’s toilets…

Any politician and any playwright will tell you that it all boils down to narrative. Once you have dictated the story on your terms, it becomes hard to argue with. But whereas the Leave campaign appealed to the worst emotions of fear, insecurity and suspicion, theatre has the power to play to people’s empathy, sympathy and hopes.

This is what I have tried to do with Counting Stars: to examine how zero hour contracts and racism affect people’s humanity; how big politics impacts on ‘small’ people; how extraordinary events affect ordinary citizens going about their daily lives. And how, despite it all, people manage to survive and flourish.

If stories are what make us human, then let us use them to pull us back from the abyss.

Counting Stars is at Theatre Royal Stratford East until 17 September

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