Sunday, April 26, 2009

Artist Interview: Sabina England, Part Two

Photo of Sabina England by Aaron Rosenblatt

This is the second half of my interview with Deaf, Indian, Muslim, Anarchist playwright Sabina England. In which we discussed "nice, sweet typical Desi plays", talking monkeys, the lasting influence of Lucille Ball, and making people uncomfortable.

Joe: Have you had a play produced?

Sabina: I have had staged readings of my plays in London two times.

Joe: Were you able to

Sabina: Yes, I went to both.

Joe: How did it feel to hear your words coming out of other people's mouths?

Sabina: It was pretty exhilarating watching actors performing my plays. It was fantastic, but some people in the audience were offended. I didn't give a shit back then, I don't give a shit now and I never will.

Joe: What in particular did they take offense to?

Sabina: Well, the first staged reading I had of my play was called Chess for Asian Punks, Greek Losers, and Dorks at Theatre Royal Stratford East, in the East End of London, which has a heavy South Asian and Black population. But there were some white people in the audience.

The play had two protagonists, a South Asian outcast and her best friend, a Greek immigrant, who both hated their lives and had nothing to look forward to since they just graduated from high school. In the play, they were in the park, playing chess with each other and cussing each other, then they discussed their hatred of America and white people. And I guess some white people took offense to it, lol. While I got a lot of compliments from Black and South Asian youths, which felt great, though.

I wasn't trying to offend white people on purpose. It was genuine anger I felt at white people. When I wrote it down, it felt good. And the South Asians and black youths in the audience told me they could totally relate. I don't feel the same way I did years ago, I was 21 when I wrote that play. I am 26 now and I'm not as angry at white people anymore, although I guess part of me will always be angry at white people.

Joe: I am glad you said that (about not caring about the reception your plays get) because it confirms my thinking about your work: that you are not really invested in shocking your audience.

Sabina: It makes me laugh when people accuse me of trying to shock them on purpose, just the same as when white yuppies accuse me of being a punk just so I can be "cool.” What the fuck, right? I live my own goddamned life and I'm not here to please or piss off anyone.

Joe: It’s interesting that you put it that way: pleasing people and/or pissing them off is the same because it is about THEM, not you. Either way it puts others at the center of your life.

Sabina: When I was in college this frat boy sent me a bunch of emails via Facebook, accusing me of being a fake ass poser, claiming that I was a punk because I had low self esteem and that I decided to dye my hair to be "cool," and last time I checked, I dyed my hair because I WANTED to. I wasn't trying to impress or offend ANYONE, they can all fuck off. If they think they need to put themselves into my face, then it shows that they can't handle someone who's so different from them, that they feel the need to say something to me.

Fucking goddamned crybabies.

Go fight your own battles and leave me the fuck alone.

Joe: I think
that is what is so provocative about your work, it isn't trying to impress.

Sabina: I write plays because I love writing, because it helps me vent my feelings, and it gives me an artistic freedom to create characters and create a world, then destroy them.

I dress like a punk rocker because it's FUN and it makes life more interesting. I think life is beautiful and should be lived to its fullest.

I do NOTHING for nobody.

And in the end, I'll only answer to Allah and nobody else.

Joe: Do you have any influences as a writer that has shaped your approach to your work?

Sabina: Oh yes, many, many MANY.

Joe: Ha, okay. Like who?

Sabina: Like I said earlier, as a teen, I read many stage plays and watched loads of movies.

I love Tennessee Williams, Eugene Ionesco, Sam Shepherd, Edward Albee, Caryl Churchill, Suzan-Lori Parks…

While I also enjoyed old B horror films and 60s French New Wave films, but I also loved watching stupid 80s family movies like The Goonies…

My influences are vast and varied. I can't really pinpoint it down. But as a teen, I had great admiration for Lucille Ball because she was the first woman in Hollywood to own and operate her own Hollywood studio. She was fiercely independent and she talked of her childhood of how she was taunted and mocked by others for being ugly and talentless.

Somehow I could relate to that.

And today she's one of the biggest American icons.

As of now, my influences are old Indian films and modern Indian literature and now I guess I'm really getting into reading books with a strong Desi or Islamic influence.

Joe: I like how many of your pieces are extended conversations between two people.

Sabina: You want to know why it's between two people?

‘Cos I don't know how a group conversation works.

I’ve never had one.

It's hard having one if you're Deaf.

Joe: Oh my God. Of course. That never occurred to me.

Sabina: The only group conversations I can really write are a conversation between a family…

Joe: How stupid. Of co

Sabina: But between strangers and friends… I just can’t do it because I'm not able to eavesdrop into people's conversations in public or at school or at work.

It's kind of sad, I wish I could listen to others' conversations but I can't. So sometimes when I watch people I make up in my mind what they're discussing.

Joe: You bring so many layers of complication into a two-person dialogue... it is so intimate that it is almost uncomfortable.

Sabina: Thanks, I think.

Joe: Oh no, I meant that as a compliment. That is how I know something is good... if it starts to make me squirm a little...

Sabina: Oh, okay haha.

I guess I'm good at making people uncomfortable 'cos I tend to ask a lot of nosey questions to strangers. But that's because I am just trying to make a conversation. As a child I wasn't good at making friends.

Joe: I am thinking here of the screenplay you have on your site now. The conversation in the diner between the brother and sister…

Sabina: Oh you mean both sisters, haha. Both of them are female, but I guess Fizzy sounds like a man.

Joe: That's right. Anyway it breaks my heart... the longing in it.

Sabina: I guess there's always some kind of an emotional longing in almost every play or story I write.

I don't have a best friend and I don't belong in a circle of friends...

Sometimes I wish I could have that fraternity sense of belonging to a group of friends or just have a best friend to talk to everyday, but I don't and it makes me feel lonely sometimes.

Joe: Hm. Yeah I hadn't thought that before but in thinking about your work I can see what you mean.

Sabina: I was born a loner and I will die a loner.

Joe: Well, lemme tell you: you have no idea what will happen in the future.

Sabina: I'm not suicidal and I'm not depressed, though. People think they know me but they don't. I just wish I had a group of friends to hang out with.

Joe: Of course they don't. Nobody ever really knows anyone.

Sabina: Yeah. Except Allah of course.

Sabina England with playwright John Guare,
who wrote her a letter of recommendation to Yale School of Drama;
courtesy of the artist

Joe: I think the theatre can do that though… Provide a place of coming together. That is as powerful as anything I have ever known.

Sabina: Yes, both theatre and films, I like how they have nice stories with relatable characters that bring people together.

So I like that.

Joe: I love the movies too. But in the movies you sit by yourself in the dark. When you go to a live performance you are part of it in a way that can be extremely dangerous. That is what I love about it.

Sabina: That is very true, I never thought of that. Also, the actors depend on the audience to make it spontaneous… if the audience doesn't laugh, the actors' performances can become clumsy.

Joe: Yes. Exactly.

Sabina: If they do laugh, the actors' performances get stronger and more bold. I love that. Every night, it is unpredictable.

Joe: I love it too.

Sabina: You never know what's going to happen.

Joe: Nope.

Sabina: If something on the stage falls, they’ll have to improvise.

Joe: And it is that sense of connection that is so powerful.

Do you have plans for your work?

Sabina: I am working on a literary fiction novel, which I hope to find an agent and help me get it published. I've been working on it for almost a year, so it's a serious project.

Joe: That’s great.

Sabina: I also have a few screenplays in the pipe, one about a high school shooting and one about a dysfunctional Desi family in the Midwest. But I figure for now, I'm going to try to get published as a novelist before I try to make it as a screenwriter. It's harder if you're trying to sell screenplays because you need to live in LA and you need to know the right people. With novels, you don’t need connections you just send out letters to agents and see if anyone is interested.

What happened was, with the 2nd staged reading of a different play I wrote, How the Rapist was Born, which was read at Soho Theatre in London, the producer and the director, they both LOVED it and they wanted to produce it full time. But nobody else wanted to, because it wasn't the typical "nice, sweet typical Desi" play that white and brown people would want to see.

Joe: Ah.

Sabina: So it never happened.

There were no magical gurus…

No elephants….

No talking monkeys…


(But) I don't give a shit anyway if nobody wants to produce it. If they want to produce a stupid, sloppy fake happy musical with dancing morons, by all means, let them do it and the audience will never know that their intelligence is being INSULTED.

Like that Rachel Corrie play you wrote about on your blog, for instance, what an insult. The audience should be outraged that they were prevented from seeing it years ago when it got censored. I just love how theatre producers, along with film producers, think so lowly of the audience, that they are convinced people won't want to see this or that.

Joe: Yeah well, that is an ongoing thing... but
that play IS being produced all over America...

Sabina: Good, I'm glad to hear that. There's one play I want to write full time, it would be called Anarchy in America. It's based on an older play, called Battle of Britain, which is set in Liverpool, 1983, that involves punk rock, English football, hooliganism, Margaret Thatcher, the Pope, and racism.

Joe: All of my favorite things.

Sabina: But I figure I'm going to change that to the United States and focus on rednecks vs. immigrants, and see how that goes…

Joe: Sabina, thanks so much for talking with me.

Sabina: No problem, this was such a fun conversation and I'm glad we talked.

Joe: It has been a pleasure learning about your work.

Sabina: Thanks! Cheers.


  1. These were fantastic. Thanks to you and Ms. England for them. Keep up Operation: Give Fiqah Good Shit to Read.

  2. Thanks for the kind words Fiqah. You can look forward to more interviews with interesting artists and thinkers coming up.

  3. Theatre Royal Stratford? Damn, that is not far from me. Wish I'd known about it at the time...

    It's a great theatre to have your stuff staged at too. It has serious history from the time of Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop Company.

    I was reading this post the other day (sorry, gave up fighting my way through the difficult commenting process) and your remarks about the Rachel Corrie play now being widely staged made me think about what's going on with Seven Jewish Children now. But I see from your newer post you've seen the Guardian version.

    Needless to say the BBC wouldn't have it on the radio... They are the people that wouldn't screen the DEC charity appeal for Gaza...

  4. @red it hard to comment here? I didn't know that. I wonder if there is something I can do to make it simpler? Let me know if there is something specific you think might be changed.

    I have been following the controversy about Seven Jewish Children and I'd heard the BBC decided to keep it off the air. That's a shame but I think the play can't really be stopped now that it is out there. I am glad you saw the new post I did about it.

  5. Joseph,

    What an incredible young lady! It is an interesting conversation. I was involved in the punk scene in the USA and Europe from the early 1980s until the 1990s, converted to Islam in the late 1990s and married an Arab lady in 2003.

    We have a special needs son, with Autism, so much of what she said resonated with me on many different levels. I especially like her attitude about the elders and those in authority in Muslim communities and her feelings concerning them and her ability to look at her religion and practice it as she feels fit.

    My wife and I have come to the same conclusion. Her being a Saudi tends to put her at odds with her family and everyone else with our rejection of mindless obedience and most of the current religious leadership in the Muslim world.

    I am glad to know there are others who buck the trend in the Muslim community, at the same time have such an interest in their own background and roots. Rejecting religious authoritianism doesnt mean you reject who you are, where you come from, or even your own religion.

    We wish all the best for Sabina. Great interview, thanks!