‘Give us the stage and trust us’: how a British-Somali play became a sell-out smash hit

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The lack of roles for Somali and Muslim women led writer and actor Sabrina Ali to create her own. Her latest play Dugsi Dayz, set in an Islamic study group, has struck a chord with audiences

Writer and actor Sabrina Ali, 25, is in her sunny London flat, remembering a time when she flouted authority as a 13-year-old.

“I knew I’d forget my Qur’an verse,” says Ali, “so, I pre-recorded myself reading it, put it on my iPod and played it through my earphones when it was my turn to recite.” It worked at first. Until “someone snitched” and she was made an example of. “Macalin [the Somali word for teacher] said that I should’ve put the energy I put into recording myself into just learning the Qur’an,” she says, laughing. “Everyone has funny Dugsi stories like mine.”

Last October, Ali’s play Dugsi Dayz debuted at east London’s Rich Mix on a two-night run – and sold out in less than 24 hours. A riff on the classic John Hughes film The Breakfast Club, the play sees four female students at dugsi detention on a Saturday, for reasons unknown. Dugsi, the Somali word for Islamic school, is considered to be a rite of passage for most Somalis. In the UK, dugsi is usually held once a week in a community hall, mosque or classroom. It is typical to start attending as young as age six, and continue until you’re 17, learning about Islamic history, and reading and reciting the Qur’an.

For a few hours each week, students are stuck with a bunch of other Somali kids – all from different walks of life, swapping snacks and jokes. Depending on who you ask, dugsi is either the most traumatising event of your childhood or the funniest. For Ali, it was both.

Ali grew up in south-west London, the second youngest of five siblings with parents who migrated from Somalia in the late 90s. A self-proclaimed class clown, she thrived in her drama classes at school. Her parents were sceptical. “I was like: Do you want me to get A in drama or a D in some other subject?” Ali recalls asking them.

And yet her parents’ hesitation, she says, “made sense to me because they didn’t see much Muslim representation on TV”. Studying commercial law at Oxford Brookes University, Ali attended auditions for film and TV roles. She was in for a rude awakening.

Sister act … the cast of 2019’s Home, including Ali (second left). Photograph: Naima Elmi

“I would do the Riz Ahmed test [a set of criteria for measuring how Muslims are portrayed on screen, inspired by the actor’s 2017 House of Commons speech] in my head and realise that everything about the characters was based on stereotypes,” she says. “People need to understand that writing Muslim characters is something that needs to be dealt with sensitively. Until we’re being accurately and regularly portrayed on the screen we can’t afford to be written by people who aren’t willing to interrogate their own preconceived ideas about Muslims or Somalis.”

Today, Muslims make up only 1% of the characters on TV and Muslim women are not presented with any nuance. Their identities are often tethered to hijabs, or more accurately, only affirmed by the removal of their hijabs, and the white male saviours liberating them. “The hijab is not the centre of our lives; why can’t we just exist?” Ali says. “If you aren’t going to write about us correctly, leave us alone!”

Exasperated at the scripts she was reading, Ali decided to write herself into the roles she wanted to play. In her final term of university, Ali wrote her first screenplay. “I watched a few YouTube videos on scriptwriting and once I started writing, I couldn’t believe how easy it came to me.” Ali found herself watching films and picking up on dialect and dialogue. She had discovered her passion: to write and act. She didn’t need to pick between the two.

Ali’s acting debut was in Home, a 2019 play that explored sisterhood within a first-generation Somali family living in London. That was followed by the first play she wrote, 2021’s Muna Knows It All, a one-woman show about a wedding gone wrong. All of Ali’s plays were held in collaboration with the Somali Week festival, run by Kayd Somali Arts and Culture. “Nobody would have ever trusted us with our stories the way Somali Week has,” Ali says. “It’s the only reason we have managed to put these shows on.”

Both shows quickly sold out, and with those successes, Ali began work on Dugsi Dayz. In the play she takes the lead role of the sarcastic and funny Munira, joined by teacher’s pet Salma, solemn Hani and not-so-street-smart Yasmin (all wearing hijab). They hold different worldviews; over the hour they spend in detention, they try to understand each other more through discussing subverted folk tales. On stage, the girls discuss everything from shady men to nosy aunties. The play is filled with specific jokes and cultural references; shoes getting stolen during Eid prayer at Tooting’s Gatton mosque; the legend of the girl who turned into a monkey for dropping the Qur’an (a folk tale that tormented young Somalis everywhere); and making fun of one another’s broken Somali. Ali wanted to write something her community would understand immediately: “I was worried about non-Somalis not getting it – I did try to make it as inclusive as possible but at the end of the day, if you get it then you get it.”

In a tender moment, Hani shares the abuse she experienced through dhaqan celis. The phrase literally means “return to culture”, and refers to the practice in which Somali children are taken to their parents’ home country in an attempt to promote Somali cultural values. It is widely known that young people are often subjected to various forms of physical and emotional abuse on these trips, which is often taboo to talk about. “I wanted to discuss this in the play through the character of Hani because it is such a common practice in our community,” Ali says.

The poster for 2021’s Muna Knows It All, designed by Sabrina Ali and Christina Jones.

On the play’s opening night, the audience gave a five-minute standing ovation – it will now return to Rich Mix in January, and there are plans for a nationwide tour. Ali puts the play’s success down to the fact that it was written, co-directed and produced by Somalis, and is performed by a full cast of Somali women. “One thing about our people is that we support each other,” she says. The cast and team made such a difference, she says, because they intimately understood the characters.

Ali is part of a generation of younger artists putting Somali-British culture on the map. For many Somalis, the film Rocks was the first time we saw a young Somali girl we could relate to. The teenage Sumaya, played by the actor Kosar Ali, wasn’t escaping a strict father, confused about her hijab or an actual terrorist – she was just unapologetically herself. “At the cinema I went to, it was packed with Somalis; we are desperate to see ourselves represented,” Ali says.

She works with and is part of the Side eYe production company, which specialises in supporting British-Somali theatre and film and actively recruits young creatives for their projects, “regardless of whether they are professionally trained or not”.

Co-founder Hannah Abdule says: “We want to put out stories that we don’t get to see, especially ones that are kind to the communities we speak of, move past being controversial and go beyond an attempt to be palatable to white audiences.”

“Give us the stage and trust us,” Ali says, “look at what we can do now and imagine what we could achieve with the right budget and support.”

Article first published on the Guardian

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