In the summer of 1977, race riots were erupting across the capital. I was 23, and had arrived in London from Kenya nine years earlier. Everywhere my friends and I looked, it seemed black people, as we identified ourselves, were victims of white oppression. I had seen the film The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, about the treatment of aborigines in Australia, and broken down in tears. I wanted to line up all whites and Kalashnikov them. Instead, I set up a theatre company, Tara Arts, with four friends who felt the same way, and who were migrants like me - from Kenya, India and Australia.
In Kenya, I had been taught English and Englishness. In my dusty Nairobi classroom I heard about green meadows and red buses, fair play, parliament and Shakespeare. Arriving in England in 1968, I felt I was on home ground. But I was not prepared for the reaction to my colour. I had stepped off the plane straight into headline news, part of what the press was describing as the "Asian exodus", one of the most significant waves of mass migration in modern times. Enoch Powell made his "rivers of blood" speech in Birmingham the same year. What I saw was my mother struggling with four children in a strange land, wading through torrents of abuse, repeatedly refused rented accommodation because of the smell of her cooking, disparaged and devalued by shopkeepers and landlords, stripped of her sari and her dignity on the factory floor.
Eight years later, in June 1976, 17-year-old Gurdip Singh Chaggar was murdered in Southall, London, by racist thugs. The National Front leader, John Kingsley Read, crowed: "One down, one million to go." Read was acquitted of inciting racial hatred a year later. As Judge Neil McKinnon observed: "In this England of ours, we are allowed to have our own view still, thank goodness, and long may it last."
This was to prove the peak of the monsterisation of Asians - the era of "Paki-bashing" - and was the catalyst that led us to launch Tara. We had just graduated from university, and the tense times provided us with a ready cause. We wanted dialogue, and my memories of acting in school plays in Kenya led us naturally to theatre - the site of public dialogues.
Our first production, Sacrifice, was at Battersea Arts Centre in south London. Written by Rabindranath Tagore - the Calcutta-born poet, artist, thinker and the first non-European to win the Nobel prize for literature - Sacrifice is a powerful attack on religious bigotry, set in 16th-century India. Its central character is a priest (I took the part) who practises animal worship against the wishes of his adopted son. When his pet goat is chosen for sacrifice, the son, unable to dissuade his father, kills himself. Too late, the priest realises the futility of religious dogma. In an era when intelligent men considered people of another colour less than human, the story resonated with our own lives in Britain.
I have been looking, ever since, for answers to the relationship between Them and Us, and between father and son, that has made modern Britain. When we formed Tara, we became accidental exponents of "Asian theatre": at that time, we were the first and only example of it. But why was such a distinction needed? At school in a London comprehensive, I remember fellow students berating me for carrying "a chip on my shoulder". Why, their arguments ran, should the sins of the fathers of empire be paid for by the sons? But now, with Kenya fracturing along ethnic lines - a Kenya created by Britain along racial and ethnic divides - the question has never been more urgent. We can't live in the past, but, equally, we can't ignore how it shapes the present.
This dialogue between past and present, between ethnicity and nationhood, between a sense of belonging and of alienation, has been central to Tara's work over the past 30 years. In our productions of Indian, French, Greek, Russian, English and contemporary Asian plays, we have sought dialogue by claiming ownership of the world's stories.
Sometimes, this ownership proves contentious. As our production of The Tempest transfers to London's West End, I recall how, at a conference last year, an outraged academic asked why my company was producing Shakespeare at all - and if we were, why could we not "do it straight"? Another wondered whether we were going to "Bollywood-ise" it, complete with cod-Indian accents.
But the play needs no added interpretation to come close to the heart of what Tara's theatre is about. The story of Prospero and his slave Caliban is a classic story of Them and Us, a prophetic story about colonialism. Through it, Shakespeare suggests one way to begin breaking the impasse of separatism: empathy. One of the most moving lines comes when Prospero acknowledges Caliban as "this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine own".
My own father dreamed I would become a doctor or a lawyer. When it became clear I would be neither, he couldn't mask his disappointment. All his long hours of work had been meant to pay my way. Everything, he felt, had been betrayed by my reckless dive into theatre. But near the end of his life, he finally came to see a show of mine. And not long after that we shared a cigarette, both acknowledging in that simple act that I was an adult in my own right - and that I was urging me to see him, too, as an equal. In that moment, we built a bridge between my work and his sacrifices, which was really my intention all along.
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