Changing the atmosphere in the room

Kamaal Hussain

Inky Cloak happened to see the very first performance of an extract from Kamaal Hussain’s show Becoming Scheherazade at a scratch night in Limehouse Town Hall five years ago. What Kamaal shared after just two days’ rehearsal was already a compelling interweaving of his own family’s story, including his Iraqi father’s exile from Baghdad in the 1960s, with the Sinbad stories from The Arabian Nights. (He later took the full show to Edinburgh and on tour.) So we were really happy when he was able to lead one of this summer’s Inside Out digital drama workshops with our younger participants, sharing some elements of his own approach to telling personal stories. Kamaal talked to us about his journey into making his own work.

What was your entry point into theatre?
At secondary school I auditioned for the school play when I was 11 or 12 and got to play the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz. I really enjoyed myself. I had a teacher who was particularly encouraging and she suggested I audition for Leicestershire Youth Theatre, which I did and got in. They used to have a venue in Edinburgh so we’d take a show up to the festival every year and I carried on doing school productions and I just sort of fell in love with it: I knew then this was what I wanted to do. But it all ended when I came out and got kicked out of home. I was 16 and had to focus on looking after myself – I was homeless for a year, just bringing myself up, really. I did all sorts of jobs and eventually trained to be a nurse. And then one day – this would be around 1994 – a friend of mine who was doing dance at Leicester Polytechnic as it was then said, ‘The Leicester Haymarket are doing a production of Blood Wedding and they’re looking for an amateur chorus of 30 to be in the show.’ So I went to audition and they asked me to be in it and then one of the actors dropped out and I got offered a part. I did that as an amateur, took holiday from work, and that was great – and then went back to nursing. About six months later, the artistic director of the Leicester Haymarket called me and said, ‘One of the leads has just dropped out of the show I’m directing and I’ve got two weeks to rehearse – would you like the part?’ And I resigned that day. Then after two weeks’ rehearsal and a month’s run I came out the end of it going, ‘Oh god, I’ve got no job, no agent, nothing.’ I started buying The Stage and applying for things and worked in theatre in education for two years and then moved to London and carried on trying to become an actor. But I found it hard to get cast because I was non-white with a funny name – that’s how people saw me.

So what did you do to overcome that?
I decided to go and educate myself because I’d left home at 16 and didn’t have any qualifications. So I did a year’s access course, then did a degree in English Literature because I felt like I needed to understand text better. After that, I took a year out to earn some money and did a Master’s at Central, which I graduated from in 2002, and suddenly everybody was wanting Arab actors to play terrorists and asylum-seekers and refugees – and I’ve done all of those things. At the time, you’re fresh out of drama school and you go, ‘This is a West End gig, this is a number one tour, I’m gonna take it’. But you end up getting stereotyped and furthering a stereotype. And it got to the point where I went, ‘I’m not doing that anymore’ – I just couldn’t stomach it any further. So I started looking into making my own work. That’s where this journey began.

Kamaal Hussain performing part of Becoming Scheherazade at Limehouse Town Hall, October 2016

Did Becoming Scheherazade emerge from that frustration with stereotypes? Or was it part of something bigger?
I think a big part of it was going, ‘I need to redress the balance’ – the way Arabs have been portrayed post-9/11, stories of demonisation, the refugee crisis – I hate even that term. And that was combined with the fact that I’d never been cast in a queer role, I’d never done a queer play, throughout my entire career, so it was about doing something that expressed that part of myself performatively as well. But that combination of the macro-political and the personally political, that’s where the germ of the idea came from. I’d had the idea about collecting Arab stories but talking to my partner about it, it struck me that if you want people to trust you to tell their stories, you’ve got to tell your own story. You’ve got to be that vulnerable and emotionally naked first. And once they’ve seen that, you’ll gain much more trust in terms of collecting further stories.

What are the payoffs of working with existing stories when making new work?
With a lot of my work over the years – particularly devised work and stuff that I’ve been involved in the making of from the ground up – I’m a big fan of fable and fairy tales and mythology. There’s a reason why we still know these stories because they’re so incredibly strong. I’ve based a lot of my work of these kind of jumping-off points but I also wanted to challenge the Orientalism of the way these stories have been told through a Western lens. And I think it’s time for that to stop. I’ve started to see more shows made by people of colour that aren’t for white people and it’s absolutely incredible. And even more so, we’re starting to see shows that are intersectional, made by queer people of colour like Le Gateau Chocolat and Selina Thompson that aren’t made for straight people or white people and unapologetically so. But I think it’s still a relatively new phenomenon.

Did the show connect in different ways with Arab audiences and with white British audiences?
I’ve always described Scheherazade as the opportunity to change the atmosphere in a room, making people think about things they might not have thought of before, no matter how liberal they are. And it has worked in that way, it has opened up conversations. But then for Arab audiences, the Sinbad stories were being told the way that they’ve heard them, the way that they’ve grown up with them rather than through panto or through Hollywood. So that was different. And I tried to keep the language similar when I was talking about my story, despite being performatively a bit more conversational – I peppered it with some of the phraseology from the Nights and I think that resonated with them. I think I still make work for a straight white lens because I’m deliberately trying to be educative rather than just being. It’s something that I’m kind of wrestling with at the moment because I feel that I’m in a process of change about that. So I can’t say that Scheherazade is for Arab queer audiences – although it speaks to them and they have said amazing things to me like, ‘As an Arab gay man, I’ve never seen myself represented on stage before.’

Kamaal Hussain performing part of Becoming Scheherazade at Limehouse Town Hall, October 2016

What are you working on now?
I met four siblings in their 60s up in Newcastle when I was working up there, all of whom are half Yemeni. When Aden was still part of the British Empire, a group of Yemeni sailors settled in Newcastle and married English women. And these siblings, they’re all broad Geordies with English first names and Yemini surnames. So they’ve started to work with me in terms of telling their story and I’m trying to work that into one of the Arabian Nights tales, which is the story of The Wife Who Wouldn’t Eat, about a beautiful woman who is a demon, and I chose that story because it’s about passing as something other than what you are, which is something that came up a lot in our conversations, this idea of people not knowing and not necessarily pushing it. I’m also working on a kind of follow-up to Scheherazade, that’s going to be about stereotyping and micro-aggressions, which has the working title of How to Build a Bomb.

• Inside Out is Inky Cloak’s participation project, delivering weekly digital drama workshops for younger (18–27 years old) and older (55-plus) LGBTQ+ participants with the financial support of Arts Council England.