Preview: Liberation Squares at the Playhouse

Words: Bea Udeh
Monday 08 April 2024
reading time: min, words

Tips on How to Find The Light in Being a Teen Under Surveillance.


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Three teenagers sharing a story of sisterhood, freedom of speech and creativity will be featured in the long-awaited touring co-production of Liberation Squares in Nottingham this month. Instead of being able to get into the rehearsal space to observe the proceedings, a surveillance of her own, if you like, Bea Udeh was met in the Ustinov Room instead by one of the actors, Asha Hassan and dramaturg, Afshan D’souza-Lodhi.

Being a Good Teenager...

Asha is one of the cast members who plays Sabi, one of the friends to the other two cast members, and has been on the project since the middle of March.  To play her character means to understand what it means to be a good teenager in 2024.  She begins our conversation with a chuckle and disclaimer that despite not being a teenager anymore, she thinks that it is a great time to be alive as a teenager who is essentially a good person, outspoken and one who sticks to their beliefs. “They’re forward thinking with their views, so if something is not deemed appropriate to them, or if something is not right in their eyes or someone is cancelled then they will proudly speak out about things.

Afshan has been working with Muslim teenage girls in Nottingham as part of See Me, the touring exhibition that accompanies the production, “The girls are half my age and we played a game where we talked about their experiences right now. I made a comment about Islamophobia being rife when I was a kid. I used to wear a Hijab, which is a headscarf. They echoed the same stuff that I had experienced 16 years or so ago. I commented that I bet that people don’t talk about what it’s like to wear a headscarf.  And they were like, "‘No, they ask me if I shower in it.’  We have not moved on at all."  Afshan and Asha shake their heads as they speak about how the tropes have not changed over the decades which perpetuates how Muslim women are politicised and treated.


It tackles such important and controversial stories with Prevent and surveillance in this day and age

The Big Deal in the Small Scripts...

When Afshan came to the project, she read five drafts of the play knowing that there were a few more drafts available that Sonali Bhattacharyya had been working on for a long time.  Afshan describes her dramaturgical process as,” Ensuring that the writer's voice and what the writer wants in terms of a story and in terms of the small ‘p’ political conversations and social situations that happen, happens and it lands in that way.  I’m the annoying person, or the Aunty as a back seat driver, asking lots of questions before we get into rehearsals:  Excuse me, that doesn’t make sense. What does it say? What do the characters do? If we take that line out, does it still work? Is it interesting? Is it funny? Does it say what you need it to say for 2024?”  She considers this picking apart to build a script of different drafts a necessity in layering a world that is not just about one thing like comedy or dancing. “What happens if we set it (the play) on a spaceship? That’s all really fun but how does it feed and drive the story? How do we make sure the narrative comes through to the end?”

Asha shares her perspectives on the light and dark that she is discovering during the rehearsals. Several times she and Afshan speak about the themes of the play including the UK Government’s Prevent protocol and surveillance. A shallow dive into the UK Government website cites one of the counter-terrorism strategies as Prevent, a 4-pillar process used to stop individuals from being drawn to terrorist activities.  People who work in the sectors such as education, health, local authorities and criminal justice organisations are trained in Prevent duties.

And Asha’s passion for the nuance persists, “Oh my gosh this is a really fun play.  You know, it's such a beautiful play.  It tackles such important and controversial stories with Prevent and surveillance in this day and age. We’ve been working hands on with Milli, our director, to explore what these girls mean to us, not allowing us to fall into the stereotypical way that young Muslim girls have been portrayed in the media for so long. The Creative Team have been so great in bringing all of these elements together by including the movement, the soundscape and some beat-boxing.”


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World Building Inside out...

There are a couple of ways to pull the outside world and the internal environment of the rehearsal room together to build a liberating and relevant production.  Asha chooses to interrogate the script from her personal experience to the actuality of being opposed to all the injustices and Prevent.  By questioning who the actors are and where they stand within this play is how the joyful elements arrive. “I think it's really easy to do a play like this and have three quiet, timid little Muslim girls. Sonali could have easily written it like that, but life’s not like that. I was not a shy, timid 16-year-old Muslim girl.  What I'm trying to say is if it is as true to real life as possible, if it was written as that, then I don't see how that relates to young 21st century 2024 Muslim girls in society today, in inner cities of England.”

According to the 2021 Census around 41% of people in Nottingham described themselves as having ‘No Religion’, nearly 35% selected Christian whilst 12% of people described themselves as Muslim.  In Nottinghamshire 20% of the population are aged 0-17 years old. The Liberation Squares production is an intersectional story of teenage hood, religion and politics. Afshan envisages an interesting mix of audiences visiting Nottingham Playhouse and leaving with a deeper understanding of this amazing intersection.

“There are several levels to whom this play will speak to:  One level includes those who have experience of surveillance - either police or state through Prevent, or other forms who will recognise the themes and form a solidarity through their experiences. 

The other level include teenagers who just want to link. They have a voice and stake. They don’t know anything about Prevent or issues of surveillance. Then the third are potentially liberals who come to the theatre to watch stuff, and may have no understanding of how Prevent really affects the daily lives of people.  In particular when you get three Muslim girls who are teenagers literally just trying to make videos, live their lives and they’re the ones who are getting pulled apart.

“What is really fun about Sonali’s play is that we, the audience, will fall in love with the characters in the play and so when things happen, it happens to us. The audience becomes complicit, so it’s almost like the surveillants are being surveilled.  We have to question our own experiences of being surveilled, an understanding of Prevent and about Government policies.  It would be great if the audience takes the action of doing more reading or understanding state policies and being critical of them. That’s my dream. I knew Sonali through activism way before coming onto this project, it's like that's how I knew her through loads of activism.  So, it's nice to see that side come through in the form of a play that is interesting, that is fun, that is enjoyable, that is a good night out with music, friendship and movement.”

Liberation Squares plays at Nottingham Playhouse from the12th of April to the 27th April of April 2024. 

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