Q&A Guleraana Mir on challenging cultural and gender stereotypes in 'irrerevant, dark comedy' Coconut, Ovalhouse
Writer Guleraana Mir talks about her new play Coconut, in which she wants to show that there is far more to British Asian women than is commonly portrayed.
What is Coconut about and what inspired you to write it?
The term Coconut refers to someone who is brown on the outside and white on the inside. It is mostly used as a derogatory term, but that is how the protagonist Rumi, a British Pakistani woman self-identifies.
The play charts the course of the relationship between Rumi and Simon, a white man who converts to Islam to marry her.
It’s a story of two people trying to navigate what being in an intercultural and interracial marriage looks like when they’re not even sure where they fit in society individually.
Back in 2015 when I was asked to write the original 15-minute one-woman piece for Ladylogue! (an evening of one-woman shorts) I was given the extra caveat to consider what I wasn’t writing about: My heritage.
Of course, I wanted to meet the challenge but I was also inspired by the fact that I’ve never seen a character like Rumi on stage before.
We don’t have much range in our British Asian representation on stage, or screen. It’s all Bollywood-inspired wedding-based drama, colonialism, terrorists or doctors.
Some of us don’t fit into any of those boxes as people, so why should our characters?
It’s your first full-length production, what has the journey been like?
Long. No one ever tells you that theatre takes time, especially if you’re producing.
The Thelmas are co-producing Coconut with Ovalhouse and we’ve known for over a year that this production would happen, it’s just been a case of getting everything in place so that we’re ready to pack the theatre with an exciting and diverse audience once we open.
Before that we spent over a year developing the play with support from Park Theatre’s Script Accelerator and New Diorama’s BAMER program, so a lot of work has gone into this.
I’m really excited to show off the play in its final form as it’s undergone some serious rewrites since our last industry reading.
How involved are you in the rehearsal process?
Not very. Since the last rewrite, I’m comfortable with where the script is at, and I trust the creative team with it.
If they need clarification on something I know they will reach out, otherwise director Madelaine [Moore] has a strong vision for the piece and I trust her completely.
In fact, I’m pretty sure that once it’s all put together it’s going to look better than I could have ever imagined.
What I am doing is admin - helping organize the pick-up and drop-off of set, source props etc. all much less glamorous than sitting in a rehearsal room chewing the end of a pen, but ultimately much more useful.
Coconut is a described as ‘an irreverent, dark comedy', what role does humour play in the telling of this story?
Humour is essential otherwise when the play takes a dark turn the audience would just feel battered.
Most of the humour comes from the character of Rumi and her outlook on life.
She’s the kind of person that approaches everything lightheartedly with a smile and a one-liner.
In the play humour is what lulls Rumi (and the audience) into a false sense of security, as she’s constantly brushing everything off with a joke and so doesn’t realise what is going on until it’s too late.
I won’t lie, I am very nervous. It is impossible to put so much of yourself into something and not be scared of how audiences are going to respond to it.
Coconut is deeply personal to me and the entire team have spent so long with it, it’s going to be difficult to let it just be on stage without having a full on panic attack.
That said I am so very proud of what we have all achieved, especially as this has kickstarted The Thelmas’ plan for putting quality woman-focused work on stages throughout the UK.
So as the clock ticks down I’ll be working to ensure that the set makes it into Ovalhouse without any scratches and that as many people hear about the play as possible.
What are you hoping audiences take away from the piece?
Hopefully, audiences will walk away having watched a love-story, of sorts, and followed both characters on that journey, empathising with them at different points.
I also want to make a really strong point about representation, and how it is possible to tell a nuanced story with a brown woman at the centre.
Not all plays about brown women have to feature a pious or submissive character. In the same way that I exist, happily in tune with my cultural heritage and perfectly integrated into British society, a character inspired by my experiences can resonate with a widely diverse audience.
Lastly, I want audiences to be excited about The Thelmas and the work we’re capable of producing.
Coconut is at Ovalhouse in Oval until April 28, visit the website for full details and to book tickets.