Wednesday 3 August 2022

Finding Home: Leicester's Ugandan Asian Story at 50

Curve, Leicester

2nd August, 2022

The rains are coming

Fifty years on from the Ugandan Asian Exodus, in which 70,000 people were expelled from Uganda by dictator Idi Amin, Curve are marking the anniversary with a programme of work to commemorate the journey made of the 28,000 Ugandan Asians who left their homes in Africa to come to Britain, many of whom settled in Leicester. As part of this, three new plays have been commissioned by local writers and performed by a local community cast. The double bill which opened last night made up of Ninety Days and Call Me By My Name showcases some exceptional new writing. Both plays explore the turmoil as well as the resilience of the communities involved in what was a pivotal moment in Leicester’s history. Under the direction of Mandeep Glover, they explode onto the stage with a vibrancy, rawness and unshakeable determination to explore difficult issues.

In Ashok Patel’s Ninety Days, we’re placed at the heart of the personal upheaval in which Ugandan Asians found themselves when told they had 90 days to leave the country. Sudesh and Geeta are one such couple who are unable to withdraw money, unable to sell their businesses and properties, and are torn apart because of having different passports. Through Patel’s writing and the finely drawn performances from Rav Moore and Sneya Rajani, we get a sense of the trauma they experience. Patel also introduces us to Ugandan characters who are sympathisers of Idi Amin thus setting the scene of a nation divided by race, class and an imbalance of wealth.

I particularly liked the play’s use of food to explore cultural differences. In one scene we see (and smell the aromas of) Wynnie, a Ugandan housemaid and Sudesh’s mistress, cooking for Geeta. Initially, we see Geeta enjoying the blend of African and Indian spices but, in a shocking moment in which she spits out the food, she uses this against Wynnie. Like in Rachel De-lahay’s The Westbridge, characters bond over food, yet it is also a notable marker of identity. Similarly, Patel uses food to explore irreconcilable differences and its nourishing qualities. When Geeta arrives in the UK, an old lady (a good comedic performance from Billie Grace Venus) offers her tea and biscuits. And in the coda, 18 years later, we see Wynnie and Geeta reunite, this time food helping to heal their feud.

That was our home, as Leicester is yours

The second act starts with Octavia Nyombi’s startling poem Who’s England Anyway read by Nathan Obokoh. Nyombi’s poetry is a refreshing accompaniment to the more prosaic language of the plays either side of it. Accompanied by movement choreographed by Kesha Raithatha, it is an impressive mix of words, movement and sounds which sets the energy and tone of the second play. In Dilan Raithatha’s Call Me By My Name, set in present day Leicester, we see Danny filling out his UCAS application. Unsure of what to put as his ethnicity, this triggers a discussion with his elders about identity. Through a series of flashbacks, Raithatha charts a community’s early days in Leicester, the adversity they faced and ultimately their resilience.

Raithatha’s play is about the power of storytelling and gives a really adept examination of how we reflect on our identities. Developed by visiting Ugandan Asian communities around Leicester, and listening to their stories, it’s also about the need to share stories and how we edit those stories as they get passed down the generations. One character wishes ‘someone took a genuine interest in [their] story’ while also omitting the more harsh memories. It is played out on Eleanor Field’s multipurpose set in which a mountain of suitcases conveys characters’ displacement. Along with Rhys Parker’s lighting, it captures the vibrancy and heat of Uganda.

These are crucial plays which explore a part of history of how our city came to be. I loved their blend of global scope with a local perspective, their focus on both past and present, and their unflinching approach at staging difficult truths. The series marks a new direction for Curve’s community productions in which they share stories of Leicester’s rich culture and history. Like Chris Bush’s superb Rock/Paper/Scissors recently in Sheffield, these plays are a powerful coming together of stories from our local communities being told on our local stages.

Finding Home: Ninety Days and Call Me By My Name runs at Curve Leicester until 6th August. They play in rep with a third play, Chandni Mistry’s RUKA, a new play for children, also until 6th August.

Manas Kotak and Jishnu Soni in Call Me By My Name. Credit: Kieran Vyas

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