Anti-racism in words of youth

4th April 2003 at 01:00
TAG Theatre worked with teenagers before using their words and attitudes to take the anti-racism message to other pupils, writes Brian Hayward

In a typically bold initiative from the TAG Theatre Company, every S3 pupil in Glasgow is benefiting from an anti-racist programme of theatre and workshops in which some pupils had direct influence.

Reacting to the suggestion, advice and promise of funding from Glasgow City Council and the Glasgow Anti-Racist Alliance, TAG devised an extended anti-discrimination project that began with director James Brining, writer Maya Chowdhry and some actors going into three city schools to work with the target classes and identify the specific language and areas of concern for the age group. As they worked alongside the 14-year olds, they noted experiences, attitudes and comments and some were included in the final script. Any playwright would agree that lines such as "It started with a fight over a Pot Noodle" are more easily overheard than invented.

In a second stage, the same TAG team went back to the schools to run drafts of scenes past their helpers to make sure the street talk satisfied the audience's expectation of realism. In Ms Chowdhry's text is also a kind of ground bass for more demanding registers, not least the neo-humanist jargon of the sociology student and the poetic, symbolist passages that punctuate the play. The cast of five rise to the challenge of this layered text, giving it a remarkably cogent performance and charging the idiosyncratic speech patterns with a compelling vitality.

For Playing with Fire, a fraught story of a mixed race family reopening their multiracial cafe in the face of arson and personal attacks, TAG had more difficulty than usual in assembling a cast, there being very few Asian actors around Glasgow. Ashok Scrivastava was recruited in London to play the father, whose role, in the common way of youth theatre, is to be peripheral and quarrelsome. The busy, attractive parts go to the three younger people.

Laxmi Kathuria, as the daughter Dolly, is at the centre of the story and gives a powerful emotional focus to the heart of the problem. She is well partnered by Paul Doonan, who plays the moody Enrico. The confident, instinctive actor, whose extravagant truculence delighted S3s across the city, made a splendid foil for the cool Kevin Lennon, playing the indigenous Scott.

The production is accompanied by a workbook and copiable worksheets, with games and exercises for personal and social education classes. Some of these are relatively gentle problems, some offer potentially very powerful insights into our attitudes and assumptions. An evaluation of them and the play will be made by TAG education officer Emily Ballard and marketing co-ordinator Helen Black to strengthen future work in this area.

It is this seriousness in TAG's way of working with people that first persuaded Ms Chowdhry to collaborate in the project. She talks in the workbook of facing racism while she was growing up in Fife and how she desperately wanted to have answers for everybody, though all she had were personal experiences, which she has worked through in other plays.

She is far too wise to think that cultural attitudes could be corrected by an hour of educational drama, even supported with educational resources.

She knows that racism is an insidious disease, with its own immune system, so instead she encourages us to constantly question our assumptions, using words and phrases such as "'going on a journey", "exploration" and "development'" to mark out the way forward, exactly like Dolly, who ends the play with her promise to set out on a journey of discovery, although she is unsure of the way or the destination.

To reach the whole age cohort, the cast has given 73 performances in Glasgow schools and special units and Ms Ballard and her three arts workers have led 205 supporting workshops for more than 6,000 students. Now, at the request of Aberdeen City Council, the production transfers to the granite city to play in eight secondary schools from April 22.

TAG Theatre Company, tel 0141 552 4949 www.tag-theatre.co.uk

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