A Global Indian playwright explores ‘What We Are Made Of’
British Indian writer Wersha Bharadwa has a word of mouth lockdown hit in ‘What We Are Made Of’, her new play on the experiences of South Asian women who migrated to Britain during the 1960s and 1970s from Kenya and Uganda.
The play had its UK premiere at the Migration Matters Festival Online in mid-June and has since amassed a global viewership of over 9,000 hits – brought about largely with a social media buzz and in particular a WhatsApp campaign created to help reach out to older South Asian audiences.
‘What We Are Made Of: The Untold Stories of East African Asian Women’ is headlined by an all-female British Asian cast and takes viewers on a historical journey, presenting the real stories of South Asian women who came to the UK in the 1960s and 1970s as a result of the waves of Asian migration from Uganda and Kenya.
Having worked as a journalist for a series of UK titles including ‘The Guardian’, ‘The Independent’ and ‘Cosmopolitan UK’ – where she was the first British Indian staff writer, Bharadwa wrote the drama exclusively from real-life interviews she conducted with women she felt had largely been marginalised in history.
“It’s an isolation/lockdown digital play in every sense. The actors rehearsed in isolation and I had to direct remotely,” recalls Bharadwa.
The result is a powerful documentary-drama detailing personal accounts of love, loss, courage, and the effects of the British Empire. The all-women version of this migration story adds a new dimension, enhanced by the strong acting skills of Promila Thomas, Ariya Larker, Subika Anwar Khan and Sabrina Nabi.
“Originally it was going to be a script-in-hand performance given by myself and actor Ariya Larker,” explains the playwright.
“But as more women started coming forward to be interviewed, it turned into a bigger story. I started uncovering bits of history I had never read or been told about, especially in terms of Kenya and what happened to the Asian community and why they came to the UK. I cast Subika, an extremely gifted performer, while I was writing the script and she gave some great feedback as script editor.
“Sabrina and Promila were cast upon completion and I was really lucky to have them on board – they were both brilliant.”
The inspiration for ‘What We Are Made of’ came from an earlier play Bharadwa had written for Sampad Arts in Birmingham but that had to be postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak.
One of the women interviewed for that play was Sarla, played by Ariya Larker in the new play, who spoke about her experiences as a refugee arriving from Uganda in 1972.
“I’d heard snippets about what happened in Uganda because of my own family histories, but not the full story,” recounts Bharadwa.
“Hearing it first-hand was so powerful and moving. Sarla spoke about the kindness English families extended to the Ugandan refugees and that was heart-warming to learn about. I knew it was a story that needed attention – especially because of the current light being shone onto the British education system and curriculum regarding the British Empire.”
During her research for the play – which was commissioned, written and produced within two weeks for the Migration Matters Festival with the support of Festival Director Sam Holland – the writer explains how she found “very little archival information relating to the women’s stories”.
She said: “My grandfathers had gone to Africa to work on the railroads from India under the British Empire, so there’s a personal link to these histories for me.
“And I wanted to tell the stories of the exodus from Uganda and Kenya from the women’s perspectives. Especially because many of the women I interviewed now may not have had the confidence or agency to speak about their experiences when they first arrived in the UK”.
For actor Sabrina Nabi, who plays the character of Sulochana in the play, being part of the work was a pivotal moment.
“I read the script and was really awe-struck by what Sulochana had been through,” says Nabi.
“She’s this really intelligent gracious and strong woman who migrated from Kenya to the UK with her husband and children and learnt quickly how to adapt to life here. I felt proud to be able to tell her story,” she explains.
Actor Subika Anwar Khan plays Hansa Pankhania, an author whose book ‘The Best of Three Worlds’ Bharadwa had read. Hansa’s fascinating life story of being born in Thika, Kenya, to parents of Indian origin during the British colonial era and then growing up in the country once Kenya gained independence is captured with sensitivity by Khan.
Much of the play traverses a delicate and finely balanced line between the political and factual histories of the times, including Idi Amin’s dictatorship in Uganda and the Mau Mau Uprisings in Kenya, and the deeply personal insights of the narrators.
Bharadwa has received resounding feedback from not just the UK, but also the US, Kenya, Australia, Oman, Dubai, and India.
She said: “I’ve had support from Instagram influencers – many of whom are South Asian women – and since watching the play, dozens of people have emailed me.
“All the artists and writers I know have been working harder than ever during the UK lockdown, and arts organisations and theatres have suffered devastating losses during the pandemic. Now I know there is an interest in these histories, I’m hoping to develop the play and extend it into a bigger stage piece.”
by Preeti Bali
*‘What We Are Made Of’ by Wersha Bharadwa, the author of ‘The Birmingham Collection: Short Stories for Unsettling Times’, is available to watch on a “Pay as you Choose” basis to support the Migration Matters Festival 2020.
Wersha Bharadwa image credit: onesnapvisuals.co.uk