She stood strong, defiant, proud – and it all made sense. The past of her ancestral warrior great-grandmother, the present of disenfranchised confusion and cultural discombobulation, which were all leading inexorably to an uncomfortable, uncertain future – it all made sense. Hassan Mahamadallie’s brave, contemplative and educational new play is in some ways an exercise in the impossible: weaving a golden narrative through a barely known and increasingly forgotten history of a marginalised people, the enduring legacy of colonialism in both the colonisers and colonised’s lands, social disconnection of a Diaspora community, the disturbing congelations of identity, religion and culture, and the institutionalisation of violence as presented on a media platform of uneven power relations into a one hour one-woman play? And he pulls it off.
The history of the Somali nationalist leader Sayid Maxamed Cabdule Xasan is not one well known to many – probably not even to many Somalis. Derisively better known as The Mad Mullah thanks wholly to imperialist British propaganda, Xasan was subsequently acknowledged by British military scholars as a military genius who had just cause, and his strategies were studied and in fact copied in subsequent military skirmishes in places such as Myanmar. Even lesser known about Sayid is his widely used and probably unique (certainly uncommon) use of armed female warriors on horseback in his dervish army, including two of his wives being generals of Divisions.
One of these dervish female warriors is discovered to be the great-grandmother of the key protagonist in the play, a young second/third-generation Somali named Suuban, living in a council flat in South London, who discovers a faded photograph while caring for an alzheimer-ridden grandma who spends all her time communing with ghosts. These and other characters are channeled with controlled ferocity, sensitivity and immense skill by actress and performance poet Yusra Warsama, never more powerfully than while questioning the value placed on the culture, history and indeed lives of minority Diaspora communities such as Somalis in Britain, she incredulously contemplates Barack Obama’s (in?)famously announcing the killing of Osama Bin Laden with the chilling reassuring caveat that “no Americans were harmed during the ensuing firefight”.
Mahamadallie skilfully uses the interwoven stories of characters set 100 years apart to ask some of the very big unresolved questions of our time around culture, identity, belonging and violence. Some of the questions will be disturbing, and it remains to be seen as the play tours how the immanent complexities will be interpreted by a wider public more familiar with the monochromatic presentation of these issues by our modern mass media, as is evident by the popular touch-points Donald Trump readily harnesses.
At the very least, this play should make us think deeply about how we are all complicit in the ‘single story’ told of people simply rendered to stereotypes of religion, culture and politically convenient selected narratives. The irony that I watched this in the company of an American who had flown in from New York just to see the play on the day Obama visited a mosque for the first time as President was not lost on me.
We need more stories like this, especially when so well told.
The Crows… is currently on tour. For more information see http://crowsdrama.com/home/.