Actor and writer Aizzah Fatima speaks out about her show 'Dirty Pakistani Lingerie':
Aizzah, you’re eight shows into your fifteen-city UK tour now – and of course, this isn’t the first time this show has been in the UK. Do you find the response different to the one you get in the States?
It’s interesting - I think it’s not that the reaction is different, it’s more that it’s changed over time. This is our fourth time in the UK, we went to the Fringe Festival in 2012 and then two smaller shows in London and a four-city tour last May and I think the reaction has definitely changed from then. I think the conversation around immigration has changed. I think there’s more of a conversation now about the identity of being culturally Muslim and also being a Brit so the play seems to apply more now.
The title is different in some of the UK shows, using ‘Dirty Pakistani Lingerie’ as opposed to the title you use in the States. Were you happy to go with the change or did you feel the title was quite key to the piece?
Ha! It’s a good question, I’m very unhappy about it. This is the first time we’ve had a team of people working on the show and it’s great to have that because for the last five years it’s been just me basically, but it also means I’m not always in the loop with all of the changes. I knew some dates had requested a change but I didn’t know it was ten or eleven out of the fifteen so I was a little disappointed in that. Another surprise I found out last night is that Doncaster are actually just calling it ‘Dirty Lingerie’.
"I think telling a very specific story is what makes it very universal. Because these are very specific stories, taken from real people and real situations in the world and I think that specificity is what makes it universal."
They just took Pakistani out! There are a couple of things I think about this; one is that the show is American Pakistani and where the show is from the word Paki doesn’t have the same meaning, you know, I might use it and say ‘oh it’s just a different way of saying Pakistani’ so it’s culturally very specific.
And two, I think it points to a larger issue here in Britain. I mean, who’s programming this? It’s Caucasian people often, middle-aged and middle-class, those are the people coming to the theatre. So at the same time I think there’s an issue where people don’t know how to talk about race and they’re very scared so they just think ‘oh we can’t use it, we can’t say it, let’s just change it’.
The whole idea behind the title in the UK is let’s keep the title and have a conversation around it. We’ve found though that the Scottish shows have been different and most have not asked to change it.
Sticking with the title, what was it that made you go with Lingerie rather than Laundry?
Honestly, I just thought it was really funny. And this play is about snapshots of intimate details about these six women’s lives – and what’s more intimate to a woman than her lingerie, right? So it was a play on airing dirty laundry but airing dirty lingerie and I just thought it was fun and kind of catchy.
This play has been with you a long time, since 2011. How has it changed over time?
It’s changed a lot. When we first launched it I had written this one little girl character that wasn’t originally part of the first performance of the play, we added her after a while. I’d written a bunch of different characters and taken them out and I decided to put her back because I think her story is really important. It’s from a little girl’s perspective about struggling with identity and who she is and being bullied, her piece also deals with racial profiling, it’s about a lot of things and it’s only about seven minutes long.
Also the play has just evolved a lot in terms of what it is today. It’s changed visually a lot too, there’s this movement in the beginning and the end of the piece that’s changed since the first few times and we’ve added more technical elements.
The play is a comedy and uses humour; when you first started work on it did it ever not have that element of humour or was that always important for you to have?
Yeah, when you’re writing you write from a different place than when you’re acting it. So when I was writing it I never really thought of it as a comedy, I just thought ‘oh, these are very real stories of these women’s lives’. It wasn’t until I started performing it; for about a year I would perform five to ten minutes at various open mics in New York City and it was at that point I realised ‘oh’ because the audience would laugh. At first I didn’t know what to do with it, it took me a while to realise there were some really funny parts in it and, you know, you can really enhance a dramatic moment by playing up the comedy. I think the comedy is important because it brings the audience in. When you laugh and find something funny it allows you to see yourself in that piece in something that may be considered ‘other’.
The play follows the story of six women. Are there any characters that didn’t make it from the writing process into the play?
I would say the play, even though it’s the stories of these women, a lot of it is about the men we don’t hear from. At one point we thought about adding one of the male characters into the play and then we decided not to, but I do think that even though you don’t hear from the men, their stories are a large part of the play.
I know you’ve said that this play very much came from a lack of roles available to Muslim women. Do you feel theatre and the arts have improved with this at all?
We have a long way to go, we’ve improved very little. I also feel very strongly that people from this particular cultural background need to create more art, we need many more voices out there, not just one or three. There are so few people right now of Muslim heritage getting art out there, especially in the US and in New York in particular. I know all of them, we all know each other – we need to change that, we need many more voices.
You do, of course, play all of the roles in the piece. For you is there any character in particular you enjoy performing more, or?
It’s not that I enjoy one more than the other but what allows me to keep performing it five years later is that these stories are all based on real women and their lives and I feel like it’s an important time right now to put these stories to the forefront. Stories from people you don’t usually hear from or even see in theatre, when we do see them it’s Muslim women as oppressed or not having a voice or being dumb or not smart enough because she covers her hair, I feel it’s an important time to put those stereotypes down. It really warms my heart to be performing it right now and I think with everything that’s going on in the States like with Trump it’s a very important time to be humanising Muslims in this way.
The play has travelled far and wide and has been received so wonderfully; what is it do you think that gives it that universal appeal?
I think telling a very specific story is what makes it very universal. Because these are very specific stories, taken from real people and real situations in the world and I think that specificity is what makes it universal.
Dirty Pakistani Lingerie comes to Unity Theatre Fri 1 Apr March. To book your seats click here!