Award-winning playwright tackles Islamophobia, marginalisation, and unequal treatment in a play that brings girls’ sense of identity and belonging centre stage…
By Mamie Colfox
SONALI BHATTACHARYYA’S punchy and funny new play ‘Two Billion Beats’, which premiers on Friday (February 5), draws on her personal experience of feeling like an outsider in her own country.
The play is a coming-of-age story that follows Asha and Bettina, two British-Asian sisters growing up in an unfair world, and the issues that come with being part of a minority. It also has plenty of humour sprinkled through it.
“The play is through a completely adolescent lense with all the joyfulness and humour and rambunctiousness that entails. My starting point was being an outsider”, she told www.asianculturevulture.com: “I wanted to write about that formative experience any marginalised person has when they’re younger. When they realise they’re an outsider, and they realise that they will be treated differently, that they’re viewed differently and that they’ll be held to stricter rules.
“The play draws a link between the fight for equality during empire and the ruptures of the impact of 9/11 on the South Asian community.”
Asha is 17 and worships historical icons Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960) and BR Ambedkar (1891-1956), and spends her time pointing out the unfairness and hypocrisy in society. Both these historical figures are totemic in addressing inequality and discrimination in the 20th century – Pankhurst most famously fighting for women’s rights, while Ambedkar’s main battle was against both the British and the caste system.
Younger sister Bettina, on the other hand, is just trying to survive “daily harassment and bullying,” and constantly fighting to make sure her pocket money isn’t stolen at school.
The backdrop to all this is the rupture caused by 9/11 and the toxic legacy it appears to have bequeathed.
The Asian community itself has become divided in a way that it wasn’t previously, Islamophobia becomes a thing (and a face of ‘acceptable racism’ itself), and all this has sparked the play.
“I’ve wanted to write for quite a long time about 9/11. It was really instructive watching this new narrative form after it, when suddenly there were good Asians and bad Asians and Islamophobia became the new, acceptable form of racism.”
She feels the current political situation is not helping and is simply adding to anger, frustrations and hurt.
“It’s particularly dangerous how divided our communities are right now, considering how frightening things are at the moment in terms of the government, who are clearly very wedded to an authoritarian agenda which rests on ramping up racism. Things are getting worse and the more divided we are, the less strong we are to resist that.”
Originally, Bhattacharyya wrote a 20-minute short play, based around the same two characters as part of Orange Tree Theatre’s season of plays called ‘Inside Out’, where she was Writer in Residence in 2017.
Her longstanding relationship with Orange Tree (an independent theatre in Richmond, south west London) led her to win the Sonia Friedman Production Award and Theatre Uncut Political Playwriting Award for her Channel 4 play ‘Chasing Hares’ in 2018. It mixed Bengali folk theatre with events on a factory floor and the experiences of a delivery driver.
When asked how she developed ‘Two Billion Beats’ into a longer piece, Bhattacharyya explained: “Orange Tree were very enthusiastic about the short, and they said to me do you think there’s a longer play, and would you like to try and write a full-length play based on this?
“I definitely did. It was something that had been in the back of my mind as I was writing the short.”
In doing so, Bhattacharyya was able to cross a generational divide.
“The main thing that Asha does is that she critiques Mahatma Gandhi in a way that I knew her mum would have a massive issue with, but in the short play, I didn’t have room to dramatise that. That was a really obvious point that I wanted to explore, and then other things came up in the writing that were crying out to be developed as well.”
Asha represents a character of resistance and is quick to challenge Islamophobia.
“What Asha comes to realise is how prevalent and how instructive Islamophobia is in terms of framing all society.
“For her, she’s in school, and that’s her society. She comes to realise how powerful and damaging that is. I’m trying to explore some of the nuance around what the British Asian experience is”.
“It’s been a rollercoaster”, she said of how quickly the play was greenlit for production. “The creative team are superlatively talented, so it’s actually been a very joyful process”.
Paul Miller*, outgoing Orange Tree artistic director, said he was delighted to have four women take control of the stage and added that the play, “shows two young women facing the moral challenges thrown at them with rigour and wit”.
This play is directed by Nimmo Ismail (‘Glee & Me’) and features Anoushka Chadha (‘NW Trilogy’) and Safiyya Ingar (‘The Child in the Snow’) in the lead roles.
Growing up, theatre was not on Bhattacharyya’s radar. It was not until she finished her degree in media arts and realised that film directing was not for her, that she wrote a screenplay for the Birmingham Rep, after which they put her on their Writer in Residence programme.
She began to write radio drama and established herself as one of Britain’s most exciting and political of playwrights. Her previous theatre includes: ‘2066’, ‘Slummers’ and ‘The Invisible Boy’, whilst her radio and TV credits include: ‘Two Men in the Fog’ for BBC Radio 4 and ‘Ping Pong’ for BBC Asian Network.
*Miller is leaving the post this year and has been artistic director since 2014. Orange Tree Theatre will announce a successor in due course.
Production photos courtesy of Orange Tree Theatre ©Alex Brenner
‘Two Billion Beats’ From February 5-March 5, Orange Tree Theatre, 1 Clarence St, Richmond, TW9 2SA.