Actor-turned-playwright Ayub Khan Din is currently playing the role inspired by his own father in a West End revival of his play East is East. Here he reveals how all the plays in a new collection of his work have drawn on his own experience and his turbulent relationship with his family…
I began writing East is East in 1982 in my first year in drama school. It had never occurred to me that I might end up becoming a playwright – but realising early on that there were so few parts for Asian actors, plus a dramatic turn of events at home, pushed me to start writing what eventually would become East is East.
Jobs for Asian actors at that time were few and far between and mostly consisted of race-crime victims and corner-shop owners, even then only as backdrops to the main event. The only real storylines that interested the programme-makers always centred on arranged marriages, where the girl was being forced into a relationship not of her choosing. Though this was an important issue, and still is today, in my case it was my brothers who were the victims and the perpetrator was my father, who himself had chosen to marry an Englishwoman.
The dramatic event on the home front was that my mother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at the age of fifty-five. It seemed that every time I returned home to Salford, the disease had progressed and huge chunks of our lives were being eaten away and lost for ever. She was the only common denominator between my father and his estranged children, so even more reason to start writing things down before it was too late. I don’t think I ever asked either of my parents any pertinent questions about their relationship. Why they did the things they did? Why they married? Why did he decide to marry an Englishwoman, even though he already had a wife and two daughters in Pakistan, whom he always considered his family?
A million questions any writer should have asked for research. But I didn’t. It’s not what we talked about in my family. In fact, we really didn’t talk about anything. We never questioned my father or any of the decisions he made. The TV blared loudly in the corner, and we did as we were told.
As my older siblings decided that my father’s way of life wasn’t the life they wanted, there would be conflicts and banishments. My mother always defended our right to make choices and would be on the receiving end of my father’s physical abuse, all of which I witnessed. It wasn’t all doom and gloom: you learn to live the life you have, because it’s the only life you know and it’s actually perfectly normal to you. We knew what buttons not to press with my father, but inevitably they did get pressed.
Writing East is East took place over a number of years, through drama school and my first acting job with the Tara Arts Theatre Company, an Asian theatre group, where I spent some of my most formative years as an actor. Tara was an ensemble group that devised all its own shows, then toured them up and down the country, playing to diverse audiences. I didn’t know it but I was learning my craft, and how to formulate arguments and develop characters, all of which would add to East is East. It went through a couple of drafts and then got slung in the back of a drawer. I was too busy being a celluloid tart to think about writing.
It was always something I did as a hobby in between acting jobs. Never ever something I showed to anybody. It had a play-reading in 1986 at the Albany Empire purely because I was taking part in a playwriting competition as an actor. I mentioned it to the director and he got me to bring it in. When I got the title role in Sammy and Rosie Get Laid by Hanif Kureishi, which was being directed by Stephen Frears, once again my whore’s eyes turned to dreams of Hollywood and stardom. East is East went back in the drawer.
Cut to: 1995 and my friends had set up Tamasha Theatre. Sudha Bhuchar and Kristine Langdon-Smith had been approached by the Royal Court to do a joint production. Kristine and Sudha suggested a two-week workshop to look for and develop new Asian writers. Sudha asked me if I still had East is East.
I did. We did the workshop. I fell in love with writing. The play was chosen. It opened at Birmingham Repertory studio on the 8th October 1996 and the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs on the 19th November 1996. Eventually we were allowed downstairs at the Royal Court in March 1997.
[East is East is revived at the Trafalgar Studios in the West End in a production starring Jane Horrocks as Ella Khan and Ayub Khan Din as George Khan. The production runs until 3 January 2015]
Notes on Falling Leaves
I don’t know why I choose the subjects I write about, I think they choose me. I never set out to write plays with messages, I’m not interested in telling an audience what to think. I prefer my characters to present the truth according to the world they inhabit. I don’t always agree with what they say, but it’s important that they say it. Sometimes they may say things we’d rather not hear, that may be offensive to some, but that’s life. For me the most enjoyable drama should attempt to stimulate argument, thought and debate.
Notes on Falling Leaves [first performed at the Royal Court Theatre Downstairs in February 2004] took me out of my comfort zone. It became a much more abstract play than I had originally intended. As I mentioned earlier, my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at an early age and eventually the disease claimed her life after three years. I always found it difficult during the family visits to see her. In my mind, I was never quite sure what it was I was actually visiting… It sounds a harsh and unfeeling statement, but it was made from a place of safety, that I could observe from. I never saw any sign of recognition and really didn’t want to be around her, as I found it too upsetting. I didn’t know how to engage with her on this level.
The first draft of the play started in a very conventional manner. Set on a ward similar to my mother’s, about a group of women all suffering from Alzheimer’s. What struck me about the ward was that the women had led full and active lives. One had been a concert pianist, another a high-ranking official in the Salvation Army, and one woman had been head of Manchester libraries. Then, of course, there was my mother and all she had been through in her life (see East is East).
The idea was always to discover what happened to the women they were. Was there anything left of their personalities? I had the idea that they came alive at night, when no one was around. A magic hour when they became themselves once again. The pianist would play, the Salvation Army officer would talk about God and her faith, the librarian would read, and my mother – my mother would make tea and talk about her children.
It was all very nice and lovely and magical. But it was also a lie. It said nothing of what they were going through and felt totally dishonest about the disease that was slowly destroying them. After about thirty pages of this Hans Christian Alzheimer’s nonsense, I frustratedly deleted it – but was left with a small passage of dialogue. The dialogue was the character of the Mother. There was something in what she said that struck home. I felt that she suddenly had a voice that had expression from wherever her personality had retreated to.
Here was a woman who still had feeling, who was still being affected by the world that was increasingly fading around her, striving to communicate. From that point on I realised that it could be only about her. Her understanding of the world she lived in and what was happening to her through what was left of her personality. And me. About my feelings towards her. About a journey we took together, that altered both our lives for ever.
The play had to be raw, ugly and visceral. I remembered that journey we took. To the doctor’s, when we were told she had Alzheimer’s. How our world suddenly changed. The tables turned and I wasn’t a child any more. She was asked to wait outside. And then they told me. I was nineteen and felt completely useless, alone with this awful knowledge. Outside the world was light and sunny, but the walk back home was dark and would continue to get darker.
In the play, the Mother and son make the same journey, which is seared into both their minds. And heard from both their perspectives. For the Man, it becomes a journey he recreates, the night he returns to the family home for the last time, with a girlfriend he barely knows. Back to a house that is completely familiar to him, nothing changed, everything in its place. But untouched, it sits empty in the shadows, silently waiting the return of the family that will never return.
All the Way Home
Yet another piece inspired by family tragedy!
My eldest brother had been diagnosed with cancer and was dying. In his last months we’d all try to make it back to Salford to visit him. It was strange, as it was the first time all ten siblings had been together since childhood. Some of us had been estranged for many years. The Salford we knew had changed. The last bits we recognised were literally being pulled down around our ears. It was no longer the place we grew up in, and, for most of us, escaped from. I say escape, because that is what it felt like. It didn’t mean that we hated Salford, quite the opposite, we all carry a certain nostalgia for the time we lived there. But it would be wrong to think we have the same kind of relationship now. We all change and look at things differently. Particularly with the relationships we have with our past. The Salford we knew was gone, particularly so for the people who left. Not so for the people who stayed behind.
There was such a sense of heightened reality at this time. Everything seemed so vivid, to me. Colours, what people said and the way that they said it. The clichés of death and dying that haunted that environment. The wet dreary weather, the endless stillness as I stood and watched the gush of water from a tap that overflowed into the kettle. The sound of a washing machine, as it filled the silences of a sombre conversation. I felt that I was waiting, not for a death, but a judgement. People asked if I’d spoken to my brother, as if he were going to impart some great critique of my life to date. Had something happened that I wasn’t aware of? Had I said something untoward? Even complete strangers were looking at me knowingly, as if saying, ‘You’d better go and get it off your chest.’
One man had the gall to tell me he hadn’t spoken to my brother, his best friend, since they fell out over East is East! He said it in such a way that it was obvious he held me responsible for this rift. The accusation was left hanging in the air between us. Time stood still, yet again, as I registered the fresh shaving-cut on his chin, the smell of tobacco on his breath and the death’s-head earring hanging from a hairy lobe. The mind boggles as to what their argument was about. Nonetheless, he stood there taking the moral high ground, idiot-like in his expectation, waiting for some kind of apology. Now, here was his big chance to face the creator of the film that initiated the argument, that had destroyed an obviously much-cherished friendship.
‘Oh,’ I said, ‘that was a bit fucking stupid,’ and walked away.
I can only hope that brought him some kind of closure.
All the Way Home [first performed at the Lowry, Salford, in September 2011] is about the clash of the past and present. How the past is always a major contributor to our present and our future. How it informs who we are, the paths we choose to follow and the mistakes we make. It’s a play about a family and their struggle to come to terms with each other. How, inevitably, while facing the death of one of their own, they are compelled to confront their own lives and those of their siblings. Forced to evaluate each other through their own disappointments. What is it that brings them together? What are the things that remain unsaid, boiling below the surface, as they move through the rituals of death? What is it that makes these things eventually erupt?
To Sir, With Love
I was asked, quite by chance, if I’d be interested in adapting this wonderful book [the autobiographical novel by E.R. Braithwaite]. What really resonated for me was the subject of education, of how we teach our children – not just the basics of reading and writing, but how we send them out into the world to become part of society. Something I believe is sadly lacking in today’s world. So many of the theories we have about education today can trace their DNA back to the work of Alex Bloom, the Headmaster of St George-in-the-East, the school on which To Sir, With Love is based.
Some of Bloom’s ideas were revolutionary, but, like most geniuses, Alex Bloom was largely ignored by his own education authorities. However, many of his theories were put into practice by educationalists across post-war Europe.
To Sir, With Love [first performed at Royal & Derngate, Northampton, in September 2013] is also about our history, the history of Empire and Commonwealth, subjects so many of our young people know little about. It’s the key to understanding who we are and what our place is in today’s Britain.
E.R. Braithwaite understands this: it’s why his story has such relevance to young people of immigrant backgrounds at a time when the Government is telling us how to be British citizens.
It’s important for young white Britain to know that black and Asian Britain has been part of the make-up of this country for centuries. That we are descendants of races who have fought and died for the freedoms that this country now enjoys. We are an essential part of British history and an indivisible part of the fabric of her society, not just as former subjects from across the seas, but as active participants of this nation’s history.
This is one of the lessons Braithwaite used to fight the racism he found in the classroom and which was levelled at him. It was important for him that his kids knew they had a useful place in society, and that their participation in that society was imperative if it was to continue to grow and flourish.
We all have to understand each other’s histories and stories, because it’s only when we do, that we discover that there is so much more that binds us than divides us.
The above is taken from the Foreword to Ayub Khan Din Plays: One, out now from Nick Hern Books. The volume contains the plays East is East, Notes on Falling Leaves, All the Way Home and To Sir, With Love.
To buy your copy now at a 20% discount – no voucher code required – click here.