By stages from the east

1st March 1996 at 00:00
Reva Klein watches the country's only theatre group for Asian women rehearse and finds out why it's so important to them.

The South Bank is uncharacteristically lifeless. No promenading families along the Thames, not even the usual skateboarders to dart out of the way of on this filthy, disturbingly inanimate afternoon. So it's a bit of a shock to enter a large, tatty rehearsal room at the National Theatre and find it pulsating with life. A group of young people, aged 14 to 24, rehearse a play about domestic violence, child sex abuse - the sort of issues that this age group thrives on. Nothing strange about that, except that for these people being in a drama group at all is extraordinary.

All the participants, the director and the co-ordinator, are young Asian women. They are members of the Nadya (Hindi for a link in a chain) project and the very fact that they come to these Saturday sessions is, for some of them, a major breakthrough. Religious and cultural mores prevented a number of girls from being involved in the first place. Others had to pull out because of parental disapproval. One girl's father didn't want his child exposed to actors. A 16-year-old had never been on a train by herself. But the core group of 15 are committed to coming to what is the only drama group for young Asian women in the country.

It has been set up by Venu Dhupa of the National's education department with funding from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. Venu's motivation is to give young Asian women a chance to learn skills and express themselves in a new way. It is also an opportunity to meet similar minded people. "For some members," Venu says, "this is the only time they meet other Asian women. Two of our young women are the only Asians in their school." For one woman, that contact is so important that she travels from Derby every Saturday to attend the all-day sessions. Others come from all over London and the south east.

What they get from Nadya is, along with the drama skills that help many of them with their GCSE or A-level courses, a chance to be themselves. That is never easy when you're an adolescent; it's even less so when a strong culture dictates how you dress, speak and behave. The young women come from a variety of backgrounds, speaking Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali, Urdu and other languages. Some are Muslims, some are Sikhs, some are Hindus. But, says 16-year-old Sultana Rouf, a student at Mulberry Girls' School in Tower Hamlets, "We have things in common. The most important is that we're all Asian. A white person might not understand something that I do or say. But I know that here nobody will laugh at me because they don't understand me."

Sakuntala Ramanee, a young Asian actress, led the drama workshops and directed the play that the group presented to an invited audience last weekend. In the first eight-week phase, she led the group in theatre games, improvisation and looking at texts. "At the end of that period, we had a committed core group and we saw that we were capable of doing something more challenging. So we decided during this eight weeks to work on a text which would lead to a presentation for friends and families."

After casting around for an appropriate play for a large number of young women, Sakuntala and Venu decided on Ruksana Ahmad's Song for a Sanctuary. A "challenging" play, it ran the risk of offending religious parents who would come to see it. "One of my concerns," admitted Venu, "is that there is a scene in which a young woman talks about her father abusing her. As a producer, I had to think of the wider perspective. I didn't want parents stomping out.".

Venu made herself available to parents who had misgivings. "I didn't want to intrude, but I said that I would go and talk to parents to explain what we're doing. I've been to see a few in their homes. Some were worried about the travelling, particularly as it involved getting home after dark in the winter. What I told them is that when they're here, they're safe."

For Sultana, the journeys to and from the South Bank on miserable days were compensated for by the fulfilment she derived from creative work with other young women. "I feel comfortable in this group particularly because we're all Asian. Here, you can create and explore your own ideas. And you can really let your feelings out." Not that all do. One girl in the group can't bear to be touched. For others, says Venu, "getting them to sit in an open, receptive way or to release their voices to shout is really tricky. We're demanding an awful lot of them when the development of the tools they need for this work is not fully there yet."

Last term, specialists from the National Theatre ran workshops for Nadya on voice and movement. This gave the members a grounding in the skills they would need as a basis for their production. They also worked on devised monologues. The young women were directed, explains Sakuntala, "to draw on things familiar to themselves. They've been very open, confronting experiences of their own and using them." Sultana devised one about a depressed mother who felt she had no one to turn to. "It was such a strong piece that in the end, I cried. I just had to. But the group is also somewhere where you can laugh."

A few minutes before, she had illustrated this point rather well. Rehearsing a scene in Song for a Sanctuary with Dimple, she comes into the kitchen of the women's refuge late at night to find Dimple taking two glasses back to her room. Offstage, a man's voice drunkenly calls from Dimple's room to hurry up. Sultana's character is outraged that the other woman has broken the rules by bringing a man into the refuge, never mind that she might be engaging in extramarital sex. When Sultana shouts "DISGRACEFUL!!!" at her, the two schoolgirls dissolve into helpless giggles.

The girls know they are lucky to have access to such a group. While there are a number of Asian theatre and dance groups all over the country, they are thin on the ground and generally offer one-off workshops or short term residencies to schools and colleges rather than continuous projects. Sultana doesn't know any other Asian girls her age who do drama out of school. For her part, Dimple sees this as "one chance in a million to do something like this."

On the night, it was standing room only for the performance, with an audience of parents, other youth theatre leaders and Jenny Harris and Genista Mcintosh from the National Theatre, among others.

Jenny Harris, head of education, said: "Everyone was very surprised by the standard of the performance. While it was difficult for the girls to carry the depth of script and character because of the subject, I was thinking as I watched them about their own personal journeys. As for the parents, it was interesting for them to see their daughters raising issues like domestic violence in the discussion afterward."

Harris was deeply impressed by the performances. She spoke to one of the fathers after the show who admitted to her that "when I first heard about what the play was about, I didn't know if she should be in it. But then, as I was watching her, I forgot that she was my daughter. I completely entered the play."

Venu and Sakuntala and the girls hope that funds can be raised to continue Nadya. A lot of thinking has to go into what kind of group they want it to be. Venu says: "Our dilemma is whether to make it a drop-in or to have a committed group working consistently on text-based work, which isn't done a lot in schools." The difficulty is that there is likely be a committed group of 15 and also those who can only drop in once a month.

Next week, the group meets to talk about how they want the group to develop. As far as Jenny Harris is concerned, there is no doubt that Nadya is a valuable project that should be continued and that the National's education department "will want to give it any support we can."

Venu says Nadya should continue because it has become such an important part of these young women's lives. "There's a real need for this kind of expression for this age group. There is simply no forum in which they can otherwise act out things that are important to them." And not only for this age group: since word has got around about Nadya, Venu has had a lot of enquiries from older Asian women who want another group set up for the 25 to 40-year-olds.

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