Guest Blog: Natasha Kathi-Chandra & Karen Mann talk about representation

In this blog post, writers Natasha Kathi-Chandra & Karen Mann talk about what representation means to them and why they’re staging stories about and for South Asian women. 

Catch their shows Om Shanti F*ck & Doll Face on Sun 16 June at 5:30pm as part of our Calm Down Dear feminist festival. Click here for more info.

What representation meant to us:

Om Shanti F*ck by Natasha Kathi-Chandra:

I was working the confines of a Monday to Friday , whilst still working within theatre teaching on a Saturday and by Sunday morning I was utterly exhausted and extremely opposed to attending this writers workshop I had signed up for ages ago. With the right support and encouragement from my partner and the right kind of self-motivation that one day everything would pay off- I attended it and girl- was it glad! I was in a room led by a successful, smooth-talking and sexy South Asian woman and surrounded by equally beautiful BAME women from all walks of life and in under 2 hours- “Om Shanti F*ck” (shanti a hindi word meaning “peace”) was born. We spoke about sex, virginity, periods & red lipstick and what that meant to South Asian women.

I had my reservations about how and who would put this piece on stage- representation to me matters both on and off stage-  more on this in a minute-  and so I kept it typed up in folder on my computer until slowly but surely platforms to showcase it came. It previewed as an 8 minute piece in an event called “Cut the Bakwaas” (bakwaas a hindi word meaning “nonsense”) at the Richmix to cheers, claps, snaps and a few “innit!”s predominantly from the female audience and suddenly I realised what representation meant to me.

Seeing ourselves on screen and stage is important and good but what, who, how and why is equally important.

Were we seeing women often enough who looked like me? Not really, and I searched for them and to my disappointment found no one, as you know- industry beauty standard and that? (Separate blog post I think?!)  So I cast a Turkish, bubbly, bad-ass and voluptuous actor in the part- believe it or not, south Asian women also come in ALL shapes and sizes with ALL types of personalities.

Were we talking about what made us women? And by this is mean- scientifically- breasts, periods, sexuality. Nope. So I studied the biology and wrote in the science.

Were we challenging the patriarchy that has existed through history, religion and culture? Yes definitely but in a less trashing of culture-way, and in a more “let me tell you what’s up “ kind of way.

Were we seeing more work about south Asian women on stage? Absolutely. Are the writers south Asian women? Yes, I think so. Are the directors south Asian? No. And this to me was also an issue to some extent. Although the biology of women is the same and possibly the patriarchal values of religion, the culture and history and how that reflects on taboo subjects of sex, menstruation, menopause, divorce, abortion, multiple partners and more is not. Also- racism, discrimination and bullying based on a memory of a 12 year old south Asian girl in school with a little moustache and/or hairy legs in PE – looking “interesting” amongst other descriptive words- again, our experiences of growing up as Asians in Britain, is very different.

My writing and storytelling is not a criticism of my heritage, culture and religion. I am proud to call myself Indian and Hindu. It is a challenge of how out dated it is and the rise of education and confidence in women from it and the acknowledgement of how many of us exist out there. Hinduism boasts its mighty goddesses. This is what we are.

My decision to source more stories like this ( my discovery of Doll Face by Karen Mann) and showcase as a double bill was to tell as many stories as possible in a one hour time slot in as many venues as possible to as many people as possible.

Representation to us is- US and in our journey with this double bill of Om Shanti F*ck & Doll Face, we have discovered that “us” does not just mean our actors, us as writers and me as a director, it meant our audience who laughed and clapped with us, who gasped and cried with us and who thanked us profusely for telling THEIR stories. OUR stories and together we will not be apologetic and feel inadequate to be us- Women. Alive, strong, united and winning.

Doll Face by Karen Mann:

Doll Face came out a place of frustration after attending auditions and realising the character I was reading was constantly a sister, wife or best friend, her own narrative was lost and the South Asian female was always a part of someone else’s story. I started to think about my own life and experiences, where was my story and so many women I know. Women who are flawed, unapologetic, sexual, attempting to find their identity in a society that is constantly trying to tell us what it means to be British Asian, we are definitely not a sidekick to someone else’s story.

The idea of setting it in an abortion clinic was a difficult and very personal one, it is rare for women to talk about abortions on stage, especially South Asian women but for me it was pivotal to the narrative. One in three women have an abortion, it is a taboo subject and we are made to live in silence with the guilt we feel. The pressure Doll Face feels throughout out her life is almost explosive by the time she is in the clinic. The judgement she feels from walking into the clinic, talking to the nurse and doctor is a reflection to what has happened previously, I did not want to shy away from the pressures and loneliness, to be a woman is difficult, to be a woman who feels constantly shamed is impossible.

Working with Natasha was brilliant, I had worked on the movement previously with Anna Marshall and Alex Hinson and Natasha was able to take the movement we had devised and work on the dialogue with me that pushed Doll Face further that I could imagine. It was the first time I had worked with a South Asian director and it was so liberating having someone who understood the piece (and me) so well, it also meant I did not have to take time out to explain the pressures and shame Doll Face felt, which meant that we could really explore these emotions, what they mean and where they stem from. Natasha made the rehearsals a safe place which meant I could take risks and really explore the narrative of Doll Face without feeling pressure of having to always nail the performance and in this I also found humour in the piece that I did not realise existed.

I am proud to show case this piece alongside Om Shanti F*ck to enable an exploration of how much has changed, or is changing between generations.  Is Ambika from Om Shanti still fighting for the same things Doll Face rebelled against when she was Ambika’s age? We leave that up to you to decide and chat to us about after !