breaDth review by Anisha Debbarman
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.