Jagged Edge: Becka Hudson on her play tackling immigration & gentrification
BY MANISHA GANGULY
Becka Hudson’s play Jagged Edge is sharply political: it makes no excuses about the conflicts it deals with. It exposes the immigration rules in UK for what they are- a poor cover for the racist violence and xenophobia embedded at the heart of British society. Commissioned by the Rich Mix Cultural Foundation, it uses imaginative use of strobe lighting, dance, excerpts from government documents and an extremely talented cast to harshly critique both casual violence under capitalism meted out by the bourgeois, and the state institutions that surround and support it.
The central character Rupai, is based on the Bengali families of East London that had undergone aggressive gentrification, policing and immigration patrols. After losing her job to a robot, she is caught in no man’s land: trapped between the loss of her home in London where she is shunned as an outsider, and unable to relate to Bangladesh, her ethnic homeland but a country she has never been to and cannot return to. She joins an unlikely band of vagabonds who live in the shadows of the society that had ejected them in various ways: homelessness, unemployment, poverty, detention, social cleansing.
I meet Becka after the play to find out the process behind it.
From initiation to execution- how much did the first draft differ from the performance we saw tonight? Did you visit any of the detention centres in UK mentioned in the play?
A lot. The depiction of the police was one of the areas in the play that was changed the most after feedback. In the 90 minutes original performance in June, we had 3 police officers playing 3 types: the violent racist, the bureaucrat and the idiot. The version that we staged tonight was changed to represent the police with sirens, blue lights, excerpts from Home Office (HO) reports and letters received by people who had been refused asylum and refugee status in the UK. We wanted to demonstrate the violence of the police as a force and examine administrative violence.
For example, the respectable Home Office letter that says, “though she was quietly tearful because of her alleged rapes and her mother’s death, I cannot say that the tears were not contrived to create a sympathetic impression in me”. Meaning, “your rape is not real”.
Photo: Manisha Ganguly
Were any of the directives quoted in the final sequence of the play based on real letters received by refugees and detainees?
Some of the letters in the play have been taken from an anonymised report called “Still No Reason At All”, published by the organisation “Asylum Aid”, which exposes the bogus reasons the Home Office gives to justify refusing people asylum.
A Home Office line repeated in the play is: ‘If they really wanted to get you, why did they shoot you in the leg and not the head?’
We used the letters to illustrate the inhumane tone, the ridiculousness of reasons given: one woman is told, oh you don’t have a passport so how can we know you’re legitimate, and somebody else is told, you have a passport so you can’t be fleeing persecution, because if you were your country would’ve taken it away.
Did you prepare the play before or after the Brexit referendum? How much did the ensuing wave of post-referendum racism affect the performance?
Before. We had our performance 2 days after Jo Cox’s murder- the MP who had been campaigning for child refugees to be allowed into the UK and was killed by a white supremacist thought to be a member of the organisation “Britain First”.The violent street and institutional racism that deepened after the murder, and after Brexit, certainly made our audience recognise the pressing relevance of what we were doing and deepened the call to action that the play ends on.
Photo: Manisha Ganguly
Apart from the real life testimonies, what are the other influences you used in creating the texture of the play?
A whole range: Gabi, our choreographer, was looking at riot footage and came up with distinctive movements to distinguish between police, who had rigid and robotic movements, and those of the underground resistance, who had these swift and nimble movements to dodge and hide and trick and trip the police up.
In terms of writing, interviews of the people ejected from society were paramount. We interviewed people who had been illegally detained, those rendered homeless by aggressive gentrification, activists fighting social cleansing. Ollie made the visual art for the show after seeing the rough city portraits by Henri Michaux at an art showcase.
For the boss character who fires Rupai, I wanted to portray a quality of violence I find in the respectable polite racism of white middle class people- with a swish of the hand and a smile they can dismiss, and devastate someone’s life. We also used recordings of the Nauru Files from a 10 hour performance we’d done earlier. The recordings from that action connected what we were doing to the brutality of borders, and of detention centres, globally.
Photo: Manisha Ganguly
One of the words used to describe the play is “dystopian”. Margaret Atwood had said on the subject, that “any fiction that shows a society which is worse than your own is dystopian…I think I’m just writing reality as it is unfolding.” Do you think that applies to the play?
Well initially, we’d come up with a loose dystopian vision that we wanted to portray, but the more research we did and more people we spoke to, we realised that this dystopia was our current reality.
In Germany, we were detained by armed German Customs Officers after presenting fragments of the play at “Utopia at the Border”, an academic conference.
We were taken to a warehouse in the middle of nowhere and detained for about an hour while drug dogs were shoved into our bags and crotches.
Everybody who had a non-EU passport had their passport taken away for further inspection. Gabi (choreographer) and another friend Sami- who are both people of colour with British passports – had theirs taken for inspection too and we were held there. This was a perfect illustration of the the ‘dystopia-like’ everyday violence of these formalities – this was business as usual for the officers and yet we were terrified.
Photo courtesy: Angela Christofilou
You describe the play as a call to arms against the system- do you think you portray the system as one that can be redeemed?
Not really. One of the things important to recognise if you study the Home Office letters and the respectable violence of the white middle class is that they are performing functions. Too often calls to reform them end up being incorporated into these functions, then used as further technique of oppression.
One basic example is solitary confinement, a tool of punishment and torture, which was originally started as a campaign by the Quakers in earlier times of prison overcrowding, because they felt prisoners needed time alone to reflect and have some peace. This campaign for a “human right” was then taken on by the prison system as an intimidation tactic. The basic logic of the institutions need to be looked at before we create a naive calls for reform that end up worse.
There has been a global spate of terrorist attacks and one of the main reasons the government pushes for detention centres is for reasons of national security- do you think that is a fact to be considered?
National security fear-mongering is used to justify spying, bombing, restricting what people can say or think, detaining people indefinitely, refusing search and rescue missions so people drown, deporting people on their arrival to face death elsewhere.
Much discussion about supposed national security issues with respect to refugees coming to UK is a tool the Right uses to justify corrosive, racist attacks- in this country from institutions, and in other countries through bombs.
After the Brexit vote, people whose immigration status had nothing to do with the EU were attacked. Islamophobia shot up, women had hijabs stripped off their heads, they were told to ‘go home’. The tying up of ‘national security’ and ‘prosperity’ with migration, with anything considered different – from EU free movement to refugees from outside the EU – needs to be thoroughly unpacked.
When is your next show?
[laughs] I don’t know! I’ve put in some proposals to different theatres and we’re still waiting to hear from them but if anybody would like to contact us we’d be very welcome to hear from them – you can check our website for details of our next show.