Theatre Review: Brick Lane 78 by Murad Khan
By Ken Powell
On Saturday 5 May, West Midlands-based theatre company, Purbanat, gave a special performance of Murad Khan’s latest offering ‘Brick Lane 78‘ at London’s Brady Art Centre.
The date was chosen deliberately: 40 years since the murder of Altab Ali, a Bangladeshi textile worker who was killed by three teenagers in a racist attack. The play by Khan (who also takes one of the principal roles) is a fictionalised version of the events leading up to Altab Ali’s death and the storm it provoked in the British Bangladeshi community.
Purbanat is a well-known and respected theatre company which brings both professionals and members of the West Midland community together to write and produce new plays as well as champion adaptations of international works. Khan in particular doesn’t shirk away from being honest even when it is uncomfortable. His comedy, Bangla Brummies, while entertaining the audience also challenged prejudices of skin, culture and tradition. Similarly, with this more serious work, Brick Lane 78 gives us a raw view of the vulnerability and lack of courage which often kept the fledgling community in London in fear of racist National Front youths and other racists. The shopkeeper, terrified by the vicious threats of youths agrees to give them alcohol and cigarettes; the husband, terrified for his wife’s safety, doesn’t want to get involved in demonstrations. The Bangladeshis in London, we find, are not a united lot.
This fear and lack of unity is vital for us to understand what happens next. With the death of Altab Ali (sympathetically played by Rajib Jebtiq) something finally struck a chord with the people and he inspired them to find a common voice, to rise up and say ‘enough is enough’. As said one member of the panel largely made up of key people who were really there at the time, interviewed after the play, this was ‘perhaps the defining moment when the British Bangladeshi community discovered its own identity’.
From the moment the mass demonstrations began on the streets, Bangladeshis stopped being a ragtag of older immigrants with wives, children and cousins born in the UK or brought over from Bangladesh. Instead they identified as British as much as Bangladeshi and demanded their rights as UK citizens to live peaceful lives without facing malice and abuse. In doing so, they found that other BEM groups also found their voices and that they had allies in the white communities too.
I was a child at the time when this play is set and I recall the white British attitude all too painfully well. Tom Hendryk plays the parts of both police officers and racist youth brilliantly well and I cringed with a kind of national loathing as I listened to him in his role as officer arguing that effectively the Bangladeshis were to blame for the abuse they suffered. It’s just so like the British to make it ‘the foreigner’s fault’. “We’re doing our best. You must do yours too,” was the message patronisingly pasted over the problems ignored by authorities.
Parbanat, under the careful care of director Sudip Chakroborthy, succeeds in driving home the range of feelings of those times. From fear to anger – even to love and empathy from those least expected – the cast were convincingly real and powerful in their portrayal of imperfect but genuine people.
It would be quite wrong of me though if I did not call out one person in particular. Prati Bha moved me to tears in her portrayal of the delighted new bride, excited beyond her dreams to be living in London. Through her eyes we go from wonder, to disillusionment, to the deepest grief. One scene broke our hearts and I can safely say that I will never be able to eat dim bhuna again without tears coming to my eyes. Prati Bha held us transfixed as her world finally unravels. But her character rises, phoenix-like, to fight alongside her brothers and sisters, to make a future secure for her family. History tells us that she was right to do so.
Social Entrepreneur, writer and journalist D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Ken has two new books coming out soon – don’t miss them!
Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media.
D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org