A Play on COVID, Care and Struggles against Racism
Reviewed by Anisha Debbarman
What do we want?
When do we want it?
I can't breathe! I can't breathe!
It has been two years since George Floyd was brutally massacred. On 25th May, a statue was erected to immortalize Floyd’s death at Tom Bass Park, Houston, United States. It is one of the many statues representing a watershed moment in recent history that drastically shifted global narratives surrounding racial discrimination and inequalities. And it all began with the filming of the brutal circumstances that led to Floyd’s final utterance, ‘I can’t breathe’.
It is a haunting statement that revealed inherent biases in the US police system and specifically problems surrounding racial profiling. Produced by Sohaya Visions and Mukul & Ghetto Tigers, the play, breaDth, performed at London’s Brady Arts Centre and for Birkbeck Arts Week in May 2022, reminded me of how the collective trauma rippled across various countries, finding several parallels between George Floyd’s death and others who have suffered a similar ordeal. It echoed a global sentiment that we need to have better mechanisms for redressing racism, extending to how the COVID-19 pandemic further entrenched racial discrimination.
This is where the play, breadth, sheds some light on how public discourses on racism shape our understanding and navigation of difference and inequality. The D in breaDth was to highlight the Desperation, Depression, Death, Delirium, and Disaster that was brought on by the pandemic in a deeply divided society across race, ethnicity and class. Coproduced with participants and in collaboration with the Consortium of Practices of Well-being and Resilience in Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) families and communities (Co-POWeR), breaDth describes the struggles of migrant workers working in the health and social care sectors. Some of the themes performed under the play involved conversations about employment, social stigmas, and work-life imbalances faced by BAME individuals who work as carers in the UK.
The play opens with a soliloquy, narrated by the medieval jurist and philosopher, Ibn Khaldun, at a time of the Black Death, where he identifies social and biomedical pathologies around minorities and prophesizes the course of future events. Voices scream in the background, ‘Kill the heathen. Kill the witch! Kill the Jew! Kill the Arab! Kill the Mullah!’ – cries that demonised minority communities with the pandemic then as it does now. Although very distinct diseases, it is as if history was repeating itself. COVID-19 is also a moment in history, which will be remembered as a disease that puckered irrational fears surrounding racial stereotypes. When the pandemic rapidly spread in the early 2020s, several deep-seated fears erupted about immigration and ethnic differences. Whether they were of East Asian, South Asian or African/Caribbean backgrounds, they were targeted physically and verbally. Floyd’s death came in the midst of it all, reminding us how structural and street violence are deeply connected.
Movements against such discrimination along with hashtags such as #stopasianhate and #blacklivesmatter were shared across social media platforms globally. These movements are displayed through voices of protesters shouting slogans in the background to the play. Their anger echoes through the theatre hall, reminding the audience of a few critical moments of 2021, where the youth took to the streets, expressing their anger about unequal treatments. These voices are in the backdrop of a simple household setting, a sofa and a carpet facing the audience members and a projected image reflected on the back wall. At the beginning, a desert setting is portrayed on the wall, chronologically guiding the audience back in time. The stage is divided into multiple timelines, from discussions between doctors and nurses to family time in front of the TV. It is as if we have been invited to witness the impact of COVID-19 from different points in the timeline.
Younger generations have moved between social media platforms to engage with global trends via Twitter, Snapchat, Tik-Tok, WhatsApp and Instagram. In the play, Aysha monitors her daughter, Aaliyah’s online activities, specifically on the kinds of news-related information gathered on these platforms. Misinformation can be rampant throughout social media, often becoming difficult to differentiate real from malicious content. It also can trample the efforts of real movements and voices.
Directed by Mukul Ahmed and written by Raminder Kaur - based on interviews with carers and those cared for by the Co-POWeR team - a team of actors, dramaturg, designers and crew delivered a compelling drama that weaves between the past and the present while engaging the audience in debates about problem-solving and future pathways against racial discrimination. Rez Kabir plays a dramatic Ibn Khaldun while Diljohn Singh plays Reg, an ambitious, empathic and imaginative carer but trapped in the not so merry-go-round of zero-hour contracts. This is all he has to sustain his young family through the pandemic and as a key worker, he needs to go out to work where he is further exposed to the virus as well as other social pressures. His wife, Bibi, played by Eleanor Fanyinka has been laid off and without a permanent contract she has no other support. Their neighbours, the Khan family, include these actors doubling up as mischievous teenagers along with Aishah Afzal playing an overworked mother, Ayshah, who also needs to take care of her in-laws in their compact house. Then there is the octogenarian Edie played endearingly by Maria Austin but suffering from post-ICU delirium as well as a bout of prejudice against those who are not English even if they are contracted to look after her in her home as precariously paid carers. She lost her husband to COVID-19 and is physically frail and emotionally fraught. Her long and exasperated breaths echo in the theatre hall, telling us that she has mixed chances of surviving the virus. Yet her robust exchanges with Reg, about her life, her husband, and her pet turtle, keep her tethered to this world. It is an incredibly nuanced relationship as there is something deeply human about Edie despite her insecurities and biases. It is magnified through the interactions she has with Reg. An ironic interaction was when Reg tries to administer medicine to Edie while she maintains that he must keep ‘barge-pole distance’. A shocking moment came when she had sprayed the room with a freshener after Reg leaves. Blatant stereotypes are targeted at her carer, who despite all the odds, is quite sympathetic to her needs and tries to bridge the differences he encounters.
Bibi’s remarks in the play hit home hard – where carers are torn between care as work and care for their own family. She complains about her husband Reg never being there for her and her toddler son.. There is another moment in the play where Bibi tells Reg, that she wears ‘so many hats.’ This seems like a quintessential description of migrant livelihoods in the UK, by taking up multiple roles, part-timing in temporary and low-skilled work. In an article published during the pandemic, low-skilled workers were praised for their resilience and dedication in keeping the society going.  Working during the peak of the pandemic, when most people were cautioned to not leave their homes, migrant workers risked their lives to keep society going as ‘key workers’, furthering the risks of contracting the virus. The article further stated how politicians blamed migrants for holding down wages, ruining ‘British culture’ and overburdening public services. This is despite the fact that it is mainly migrants and their descendants who have kept essential services going especially in hospitality and healthcare sectors.
The play highlights the chequered geography of care and how it was deeply impacted by the pandemic. Care and caretaking as a profession can be an emotionally draining field. Carers sacrifice more than just time for the role. While exposed on the frontline, they are also expected to handle multiple aspects of illness, trauma, and emotions of those they care for. Care work in old age homes is especially precarious, with the possibility of dealing with death on a regular basis. I don’t think there can be enough training to kit individuals out to work with all the expectations and circumstances of carers, since anything can happen and this can critically impact their physical and emotional well-being. In the last two years we have witnessed several deaths, particularly of those who live in care homes in UK as well as across the world. Those with a compromised immune system, especially people of older generations, faced a high risk to the pandemic. An article published in the BMJ states that overcrowding, poor care, and neglect are the major reasons why care homes are high risk areas. 
What do we want? Certainty. When do we want it? Now!
Towards the end of the play, cast members in character interact with the audience, posing critical and poignant questions on the uncertainty faced by migrant workers in the care systems. For instance, Ibn Khaldun asks, ‘How can carers be supported more? What do they need most?’ Reg asks, ‘How do I deal with racism from older people and their families when I try to do my job? Why is it only people like us and new migrants who can do this job of care? Who do we need to tell and how?’ Among other questions, Aysha asks ‘How can I be a carer in the house for young and old and try to work to support our financial needs?’ Bibi asks, ‘How can I get a job for life that does not put me in danger? How can I stop being so reliant on my husband?’ And Edie asks, ‘How can I overcome my paranoia and prejudice for anyone that looks different? How can I get rid of my worries and biases?’ Such questions were answered in a variety of ways and no doubt were very different in the second performance of the play for Birkbeck Arts Week the following day.
The play and subsequent discussion makes you reflect on the characters’ everyday challenges, vulnerabilities and resilience, ranging from barriers in their workspaces to the lack of support from authorities in terms of family welfare and finances. These are not merely theatrical characters but also based on the real lives of participants in Co-POWeR research. There is a visible gap between the living conditions of BAME/migrant workers in the care system and policies designed to help them. A few members of the audience believed that it is the lack of education and awareness about their struggles. However, the process of educating society is more than just learning about socio-cultural and ethnic histories. It also involves unlearning archaic stereotypes and opinions about cultural and racial difference while acting upon the problems and challenges to make some positive changes in society.
 Goodfellow, Maya (2020), While 'low-skilled' migrants are saving us, the government is cracking down on them
 Mahase, Elizabeth Covid-19: Neglect was one of biggest killers in care homes during pandemic, report finds, BMJ (22nd December 2021)
a theatre play by Raminder Kaur
Review by Grant Foxon
“In the world of rats, paranoia is king and vengeance its queen…”
breaDth was a truly astounding work on COVID-19 and care that almost dipped into magical realism. From the onset the “estro poetico” nature of the sound design beautifully complemented the image on stage to such a degree it was difficult to tell where the poetry of dialogue ended and the music began.
With the mystic and jurist Ibn Khaldun from the fourteenth century around the time of the plague, the play uses a time-slip narrative device to excellent effect. This technique not only advances the plot but also shapes the structure of the piece into a circular cycle-like effect that denotes a sense of not only history repeating itself but also the recurrence of global diseases - diseases such as the Black Death and COVID-19 but also social diseases such as racism that keep turning up again and again throughout history.
Based on national research by the Consortium on Practices of Well-being and Resilience among Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic families and communities, the play deserves praise for highlighting such taboo issues as racism amongst the elderly who have a “Pensioners Prejudice Permit” as the character of Bibi retorted. I also really liked the nuances such as when the hospital doctor and nurse were talking about the two TV comedy series, Mrs Browns’ Boys and Father Ted, and compared them not in terms of which programme is funnier, but in terms of whether Mrs Brown or Father Ted would win in a fight down a dark alleyway. Such lines are a strong reflection upon our society in terms of how we judge things not in terms of how they should be judged, but on factors that are not even relevant.
Well directed by Mukul Ahmed and performed by Rez Kabir, Diljohn Sidhu, Maria Austin, Eleanor Fanyinka and Aoshah Afzal, it was a fantastic piece of theatre that I would strongly recommend to anyone.
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Filmed Theatre Review
by Aakash Wankhede
The filmed performance of breaDth, based on real-life stories collected by researchers in Co-POWeR: Consortium on Practices of Well-being and Resilience in BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) Families and Communities, was penned by Raminder Kaur with dramaturgy by Alda Terracciano. The play was first performed at Brady Arts Centre and for Birkbeck Arts Week in London in May 2022, followed by its filming and hybrid screening at Brunei Gallery for the SOAS South Asian Heritage Month Festival, that was then followed by an online screening with actors in July 2022 to reach out to national and international audiences.
Directed by Mukul Ahmed, breaDth was performed by the following actors who played multiple roles Rez Kabir as Ibn Khaldun, Dr Panesar; Maria Austin as Edi; Aishah Afzal as Aysha, and Nurse Tina; Eleanor Fanyinka as Bibi and Aaliyah and Diljohn Sidhu as Reg and Bilal
The play starts with music that evokes the medieval era produced by Karen Boswall, and along with the evocative projections by Edgar Lushaju, effectively casts us back into the past.
The narrator is Ibn Khaldun, a jurist, philosopher and polymath, who narrates the event of destruction that happened due to the Great Plague that devastated millions in the fourteenth century: ’The “Black Death” is everywhere, spreading from west to east. With this comes the demonization of minorities such as Jews and Muslims.’, he says. ‘The paranoia of past present and future’: similar to the social pathologies of the plague, COVID-19 has destroyed many lives around the world. People of all ages, gender, caste, and ethnicity have suffered due to the pandemic, some more than others, especially along the lines of social prejudices relating to race and ethnicity. This situation was exacerbated due to unequal health conditions and improper access to resources.
The problems faced by BAME communities, otherwise referred to as Global Majorities, are manifold, whether it is due to a life-threating disease or discrimination against the community. They are clearly visible with regards to the lack of resources for minority communities making their life more difficult. Children and older people are also more vulnerable than others owing to their isolation and/or fragility. For instance, with the multi-generational Khan family in breadth, there are not enough digital devices or internet access for the family to do their work including for school. Everyone has to wait for their turn to work on the laptop. With the octogenarian, Edie, we hear that she is struggling with technology, trying to retain a hold on social communication.
The lack of resources and provisions is also evident in the shortage of space in the household especially with the Khan family. Hardly any member gets privacy or space to breathe. This contrasts markedly with Edie’s house that we see later where she is left on her own in a silent house. Other times, fear of the outside, as we hear for the older Khan family members, lead them back into the safety of their small spaces.
When it comes to the hospital scene, Nurse Tina shared her experience working with the other more privileged staff where she has to face frequent taunts and derogatory comments from her colleagues even though she is doing her best to care for patients when others would rather throw them out to free up their beds. This scene makes me ponder over the apparent inequality in the medical profession, despite being viewed noble and respectable. It is further highlighted by Bibi’s comment on how some English people treat carers of colour even when they are doing their job well: “We are white which makes us all right”.
COVID-19 heavily impacted frontline workers including carers of all kinds. Many of them are from BAME communities.
The play reflects upon a pivotal issue faced by migrants from the Global South who moved to the UK in search of work - racial discrimination. Those who become carers are not immune to these preconceived prejudices and discrimination. In a conversation between the carer of Asian descent (Reg) and the white woman (Edie), you can gauge the tensions that arise from this interaction, an interaction that is not without its humorous and empathetic aspects.
The woman does not feel like she is being cared for and prefers a white caregiver, even though her caregiver is proficient and professional. She is of the opinion that migrants ‘have taken their jobs’. He knows that there are not enough people doing this kind of work due to its low income and precarious zero-hour work conditions. In fact, those on zero-hour contracts and without workers’ rights have constant fears of losing their jobs. Their worry is to earn for themselves and their families while risking their lives to help and save others.
The ‘Black Death’ of the medieval era becomes a metaphor for the ‘Deaths of Blacks’. Reports have noted the escalation of Stop and Search especially for Black and Asian men. When the police arrest the Asian carer, alleging him to be a drug dealer and robber, the layered racism from street to state is laid strikingly bare.
The audience too appreciated the play for its multiple significance that ranged from history, comedy, poetry and politics: ‘This play is multifaceted, and thought provoking‘; ‘Covid-19 is the setting to expose existing injustice’; and ‘I am acutely aware of the intersection of COVID with black lives matter, highlighting racism, but these [stories] really moved me to expand my focus to the frontline workers experiencing racism too’.
The condition of care and carers was a strong chord of resonance: ‘One thing that struck me - what can we do for carers more to support them? What do they need the most, you know whether they’re caring in the home, which is so very prison like and then outside of the home. What is it that they need? I think this play brought out all those different layers’.
One person pointed out how ‘very insightful and enlightening the play was’. Others highlighted what they learnt from it: ‘I thought it was incredibly engaging and emotive, the connection between the historical and the present worked so well, the actors did a fantastic job, and - in particular, the scene with Reg and Edie - did continue to play on my mind afterwards.’
Another audience member noted: ‘My goal for viewing this play was to grow in my awareness of multicultural issues and marginalized populations. The play achieved this for me. The focus of loneliness in the elderly community, as well as the racism experienced within healthcare, were two dimensions of awareness that I have not given much attention to. ‘
One actor in a workshop said: ‘This is a subject that I haven’t really thought about before, in terms of how a carer might endure racism, it makes me think of my grandmothers. One grandmother was a nurse... and my other grandma was a carer and these are things that they probably would have endured back in the 60’s or 70’s, possibly 80’s. But this is modern day, and to know that these are real stories…and to know things like this are still going on, even during the pandemic, for me, I find this quite eye-opening.’
From several perspectives, while exploring how people are feeling suffocated through a combination of disease and prejudice, the play opened alot of eyes. It is a hard-hitting drama that is not to be missed.