Dutch and British playwrights reflect on shared colonial history
It started with an idea to bring two Dutch and two British playwrights together, all with family roots outside of Europe, in countries that were once colonized, to reflect on this colonial history and to what extend it had shaped their identities. They would all come together, talk about their backgrounds, share ideas, and subsequently each would write a short script for a play. But the project, called Boom!, gradually grew larger after the initial seed for an idea was planted in late 2019. There are now seven playwrights involved, building on their original short scripts, working with actors and technicians to bring their plays to life.
Boom! is funded by Dutch Performing Arts and the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in the UK.
A mosaic of different voices
Don’t expect one narrative to arise from a project with seven playwrights reflecting on our shared colonial history, says Jonathan Meth, initiator of Boom! straight away. “What makes this project unique is that the works have not been commissioned by theatres, as is usually the case. This is a writer-centered project, bringing about a mosaic of different voices.”
Originally, the twenty minute scripts were supposed to be completed by April 2020. Staged readings were scheduled in the Gate Theatre in London to an audience of theatre professionals. However, due to the coronavirus pandemic the readings had to be postponed. It was a major blow, but it also created an opportunity to take more time to work on the scripts, and to involve actors, technicians and other professionals that could help to bring the scripts alive. Meth approached Dutch Performing Arts with this idea. With success. The writers could continue the collaboration within Boom! and work on longer script or, in one case, a performance installation.
Generating interest in Scotland
A new date for an industry facing event has not been set yet. It is too early to talk about bringing people, from various countries, together in theatres in the UK. The good news about the postponements is that the artists can show a more complete piece of work due to the extra time they have. Meth explains that a location for the readings has not been selected yet. He says: “There will certainly be an event somewhere in London, but I don’t know in which theatre. And perhaps we will also do a staged reading in Edinburgh, where one of the playwrights, Uma Nada-Rajah, is currently generating a lot of interest.” Besides being a playwright, Uma is also a senior nurse in Scotland. The script she is working on within Boom! centers around psychiatry in Britain. Nada-Rajah’s network in Scotland helps all playwrights in Boom!. “Being able to use each other’s network is one of the great advantages of working together in a project like this”, says Meth. “All playwrights in Boom! are already quite well-established, so it is not so much about learning from each other. It is about getting to know each other and helping each other, supported by me as a dramaturg.”
‘Inspiring to talk about our backgrounds’
Talking with each other about their backgrounds has definitely been inspiring, say the playwrights involved. Enver Husicic, one of the Dutch playwrights, says: "It was good to find out that I am not the only one dealing with certain questions. For a long time I chose not to explore these themes directly, because I did not want to be the writer who dives into his own colonial history. For me it was more important to fit in, to be accepted as one of the many writers, in the here and the now. I have started to realise that it is my story and my own personal history that sets me apart from others, and it’s a well of artistic ideas."
Another participant in the project, Neske Beks, says: "Boom! gives me the chance to research and connect our collective history with a more personal story about mother’s father, who was an Afro-American soldier during WWII." Writing in Dutch and having the work translated into English – in collaboration with professional translators – has also given a special dimension to this project. Beks points out: "Translating my work into English taught me the importance of rhythm in my language, more than any other piece or book has ever done before." Since her participation in Boom!, Beks has started to write more in English. "This is actually totally in sync with my international way of living. My deep love for the Dutch and Flemish language came with a kind of loyalty that blocked me from writing in English. And now that I’ve finally decided to cross that line, I do discover it actually brings me closer to my unknown ancestor: Edward Battle, whom I never knew."
First meeting in Rotterdam
To get the conversation started, Meth invited all writers to Rotterdam, where they spoke about their backgrounds and visited a play and theatre exhibition together. “I took them all to Theatre Babel where we watched ‘J is for Jessica’ (‘Van J. naar Jessica)”, Meth recalls. “Theatre Babel Rotterdam is a theatre with a strong focus on social inclusion.” At the Wereldmuseum, the playwrights paid a visit to the exhibition on the East Indies, a former colony of the Netherlands. These trips helped to strengthen the bond between the playwrights, who all have very different backgrounds, yet share a common denominator: they are living in Europe, but also have origins outside of the continent, in countries that have been scarred by colonialism.
About the participants and the themes of the plays
- Uma Nada-Rajah is exploring racial inequalities in the care sector.
- Enver Husicic is exploring stereotypes in a two-hander with an older Surinamese woman and a younger Dutch man who have a care relationship.
- Neske Beks is exploring her grandfather’s family name, Battle. How was that name adopted?
- Jude Christian and Gable Roelofsen were already collaborating before Boom!. They are now working on a performance installation together.
- Maaike Bergstra is working on a piece about "blended families", containing various layers of diversity in race and gender.
- Chinonyerem Odimba works on a play centered around the fabrics often used to make West-African garments. These cloths are often made in the Netherlands and are called Dutch Wax.
- Dramaturg Jonathan Meth, founder of The Fence, an international network for playwrights, initiated Boom! and is coordinating the project.